Remember the eBook?

Originally published 20 March 2012

It seems I'm not the only one having trouble navigating or remembering the details of what I read in eBooks ... and perhaps biology is to blame.

Human memory and comprehension has evolved to take in information via a range of physical and visual cues and unlike books, eBooks lack many of these cues.

Books on a bookshelf are wonderfully rich in colour, size, weight, page design, font, style, paper feel, smell, right down to sentence length. The text and image is static in our mind and so while we won't remember all the information in the books, our brain remembers the map of where that information sits and we can navigate it relatively easily.

Dr Mark Changizi, theoretical neurobiologist and director of Human Cognition at 2AI, says the topography of our bookshelf helps our brains process information to lay down memories. eBooks lack many of these cues and leave our brains yearning for more information to help us build a map.

I first experienced this problem long before eBooks with my electronic diary when I found that I was just not remembering what I had on. With my paper diary, I remembered events more by where I was when I made the entry, where I wrote it on the page, and what pen or pencil I used. My online diary was practical in so many ways, but lacked topography.

Software developers in the future would be advised to take this into account to create spatially richer reading platforms. And as publishers, we should be considering how we can add visual stimuli to our eBooks.

This reminds me of the comment by Antoine de Saint Exupery that he always kept a pile of books by his bed, not because he was reading them all, but for the knowledge that they held. I wonder if he would feel the same with a Kindle by his bed.

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