Neuroscience of an eBook

Posted on 28/03/2012 by


There have been some articles lately about the neuroscience of ereading (though mainly based on cobbling together previous work on reading in general, and from anecdotal evidence regarding ereading practice), mainly summated by Chris Meadows, writing at Teleread: Does e-reading affect our memory of what we read?

Do we remember less when we read e-books? Some neuroscientists think we do, because e-books don’t provide the same sorts of spatial queues that printed books do. Apparently location cues are a very powerful aid to remembering things—and just the fact that we know about how far through a book those particular things are helps us fix them in our memory.

While this is quite a significant area for further study, an ebook also solves an innumerable number of issues (in the proper use of the term) otherwise related to print. Simple things like hyperlinked indexes, and the opportunity to find and quote text. Of course, these are continuations of the book as we know it.

More than this, however, are the more radical reimaginings of reading made possible by electronic books, such as Rapid, Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) (see Russell, Hull & Wesley; Mross and Kintsch, 1985; Till, Mross and Kintsch, 1988; Sharkey and Sharkey, 1992), which posits a practical view toward expressing text as horizontal flow, at a fixed level, at a speed controlled by the reader, as a way to better aid comprehension (imagine use of this by dyslexic readers, and for speed reading (see: Afterthought Speed Reader and Simian Speed Reader apps for Apple’s iOS.)

Or question whether this is, in fact, the issue, or merely an issue. Winger and Payne’s Comprehension and Retention of Nonlinear Text (1996) (see also: Salmeron, Canas, Kintsch and Fajardo, 2005), along with the idea of a ‘cognitive load’ in hypertext (Niedenhauser, Reynolds, Salmen and Skolmoski, 2000) does suggest that hypertext reading—different, but related to electronic reading—damages recall. However, it also trains our brain to analyse navigational cues much more efficiently, a very important neurophysical change for our world of information overload (Carr argues the pessimistic view in The Shallows (a darling book of the embattled publishing industry), while Nick Bilton’s I Live in the Future argues for hope.

The point is—as I have argued round the long way—that there are problems with ereading, but there also appear to be uses for it. Why not pursue both (especially when we can see how easy it is to ‘turn on’ one on top of the other. Without loss)?

This is a sincere question, as, once again, the further I go in this research, the less sure I am.

This post first appeared on the Curtin University ICT & Enabling Technologies Blog

Your brain on drugs books. Image from Yeah Write!

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