Humans didn’t evolve to read, so the process repurposes various circuits in the brain. Eyes hunt and gather. The mind interprets shapes and situations the way it would find prey hiding in shadow or edible plants suited to certain settings. The cortex registers meaning in patterns and trends, determining what grander lessons lie in individual observations.
Readers looking to recover detail often say, “I think that’s on a right hand page at the top” the same way a gatherer might say, “In the shadows of a rock beside the eastern branch of that stream is a bed of plump mushrooms.”
A recent Scientific American article suggests the brain undergoes a different sort of repurposing for electronic media, rendering finding information more troublesome.
Knowing has at least two dimensions—what it is and where it is—and, correspondingly, each dimension is subject to two types of memory. Some details humans remember exclusively in context, like knowing where to turn next when traveling to a location visited infrequently or singing the next line of song without being able to quote that line at other times. Babies are masters at this type of memory. When a parent sits them in a high chair, they know what’s next.
The other type of memory is deliberate and arises from a conscious effort to recall. Babies haven’t memorized their daily schedule or created a to-do list to assure they will eat, nap, and cuddle in appropriate sequence. They may not like the next activity when a parent proposes it. They know what’s coming only when it begins.
Another way to think about this distinction is to consider two questions from English class: “What does Holden say when the nuns ask him where he goes to school?” and “Which characters ask Holden about school and what’s consistent in his responses?” The former relies on knowing what’s next, the latter on locating, gathering, and retaining useful detail.
The research on electronic reading is preliminary and not entirely clear, but it appears that, when contextual memory doesn’t imprint strongly enough, conscious memory weakens accordingly. Reading comprehension quizzes demonstrate that electronic and physical readers do just as well immediately, but, when tested later, physical readers retain more detail and retain it longer. Some researchers say the results are transitional. Students still take paper more seriously, and those trained on physical texts are adjusting to a world where electronic ink predominates. Future generations will adapt to scrolled rather than paginated texts and results will even out.
Other researchers, however, believe these findings suggest electronic reading is inherently ephemeral. They theorize virtual location makes less of an impression on the brain than actual location. They place a great deal of importance on readers’ being able to hold the text and handle it physically, to regard the text as an object rather than as content in one of many undifferentiated receptacles. This “haptic” element of a tangible, sensory object, they say, is crucial to the hunter-gatherer in humans. Thus application writers are smart to adhere to page layouts that nod not only to familiarity but also to the way the brain works.
To complicate matters, however, some thinkers claim the sort of reading a person does electronically and physically are not the same. They make a distinction between focused reading and connected reading (which, elsewhere on this blog, go by “immersive” and “extractive.”) Focused reading requires a close examination of a single text, whereas connected reading assumes a nexus of meaning. Connected readers look for what’s relevant or interesting or important, rifling through containers to complete a larger task.
Connected readers also show an amazing ability to link disparate ideas and information, but their aims demand moving on. They may have lower expectations—one or two nuggets among all the ore—and less patience. They may skim more and be less likely to remember where they found a particular piece of information. When a reader gathers detail without context, to fulfill an overall conception, the information isn’t always discerning or accurate.
Some researchers even believe light fired into the face of the reader and flashing screens (though not perceived consciously) may prod readers to move on. Physical books exude permanence. While people skim them too, they aren’t as well-built for rapid ingestion and don’t accommodate extractive reading as easily. Nor do readers regard conventional books as readily searchable.
Overall, this early experimentation brings to mind Thoreau’s injunction against inventions that are “improved means to unimproved ends.” The most successful reading devices are those with low light, standard pagination, and signals like double screens or graphic book edges to indicate location and progress. In other words, they are costly and complex books. While these devices store more and save students everywhere backaches—an advantage not to be taken lightly—many of their touted improvements remain unverified.
More troublesome are findings indicating electronic ink improves neither means nor ends. If it’s true few landmarks mark a reader’s way through the undifferentiated topography of electric media, many readers could be lost… without really knowing it.