Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Of eBooks, Memory, and the Power of Tactility

Fascinating. I've long objected to ebooks for personal use because I like to be able to rapidly flip around pages, go back and reread sections, find out how far I am from the next section break, etc. It's really interesting to see that put in a psychological perspective.

That was said by a colleague and friend, and it articulates excellently why I still prefer physical books. I'm obviously online a lot and do much reading on screens, but not yet books. They're a different beast than posts and articles because of their length (although, truth be told, I prefer even those in print form). Books are better because of their physicality, in my mind, partly because I do like to flip around to reread and etc., and partly because things I read in books stick better in my mind than what I read on screens. There's a reason for this.

My friend was responding to the blog post, This is Your Brain on eBooks. In it, the author shares some research he's done for a presentation. He shares lengthy quotes from a couple of sources about spatial context and memory that explain why a physical environment is important for recall. A few excerpts:

And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable. . . .

The web and e-books have upsides physical libraries do not, of course, but they are deeply lacking in spatial navigability, and so they don’t yet serve the brain-extension role that is within their potential. . . .


Spatial context may be particularly important because evolution may have shaped the mind to easily recall location cues so we can find our way around. . . .

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print . . . Printed books on the other hand, give us a physical reference point, and part of our recall includes how far along in the book we are, something that’s more challenging to assess on an e-book.

He connects it to the TED talk Neil Burgess: How your brain tells you where you are. I connect it to a couple of other things. The first is my recent reading and blogging about Joshua Foer's book on the competitive memory circuit, Moonwalking with Einstein. Specifically, what I wrote in A Few Thoughts on Memory:

Later, whether it's the very next time I use that same section of trail or road or months or even years later, I'll suddenly have a vivid memory of a scene or section from a book I was listening to when at that spot previously. The physical location is somehow linked to the listening experience and the activity. . . .

I'm not crazy, because that's the way memory works. And once you know that's how memory works, there are tricks you can teach yourself to make it work better. The sensory associations are key, particularly images. . . .

Memory masters don't necessarily have superior intelligence or innate talent, they just practice hard using the classic mnemonic device of memory palaces--remembered or imagined physical spaces in which you mentally place images of what you want to remember, so that by "walking" through the palaces later you encounter the images and remember what they represent.

The other connection I made was to an article I flagged just yesterday to read and consider blogging, but the connection is more than just timeliness: 5 Seemingly Random Factors That Control Your Memory. The first factor: Walking Through Doorways.

Your brain uses a very similar directory system to that of your computer. Only instead of neat folders labeled "Work," "Documents" and "TOTALLY NOT PORN," your brain tends to compartmentalize by physical location. This means that the information readily accessible to you in one room ("I must get a glass of milk to wash down all this delicious fudge") suddenly becomes a lot harder to access when you go to another one ("Why am I in the kitchen? I know it had something to do with the toaster ..."). The moment you cross a doorway, you're essentially sending a signal to your brain that you're in a new environment now and that nothing that happened in that previous one matters, so just flush it.

It seems that memory has a very definite spatial, physical component. So do paper books, in a way that's lacking in eBooks. That doesn't mean that reading from a screen is a worthless activity, but this factor is definitely something to consider. Maybe there's a reason so many of us instinctively rebel against eBooks and prefer the tactility of traditional ones, even if we can't quite name why.


I wanted to mention a couple of the last article's other four memory factors. The first: Ridiculous Fonts. I share this because I am a Comic Sans apologist and I make frequent use of it, despite the widespread disdain for it. It just seems to have a special something I've never quite been able to name. Maybe that something is recall:

Researchers at Princeton and Indiana University proved this by having one group of people read stories in 16-point Arial and others in the much more difficult to process 12-point Comic Sans MA and 12-point Bodoni MT. Quite simply, they found that the people given the shitty font retained the information better. This was confirmed by a longer 200-person trial where the lucky kids who got their textbooks replaced with doppelgangers with funky fonts retained the material better and got higher test grades. The effect was most noticeable in physics, which is strange, as a physics book written in Comic Sans would be quite close to our definition of hell.

Another factor that impacts memory: Looking at the Floor. It's not the floor that matters so much as looking away from faces: The reason appears to be that, as social animals, human faces are mentally captivating to us, and thus suck up quite a lot of our concentration. If you want to devote more mental horsepower to solving a problem, you need to look away. I've always been very self-conscious in conversation with others since I realized--a long time ago--that I lower my eyes frequently when I have something I want to pause to consider. Self-conscious because it's no issue when talking to men to drop eye contact to gaze at their chests, but with women . . . it's not the best habit; even if your eyes will unfocus as you turn your gaze inward, they probably won't catch on to that fact. I've had to train myself to look over shoulders and in other directions instead.


At 4/13/2012 11:22 AM, Blogger Degolar said...

A good question came up in the Facebook discussion about this: "Interesting read. Don't you listen to a lot of audio books? Are you more forgiving of audio books than ebooks?"

The friend quoted above responded: "I would imagine that he has physical location cues for audios."

I elaborated: Quite so. I'm naturally very textual, preferring reading and writing as my main modes of learning and expressing myself, so I've had to train myself to be able to enjoy audiobooks. It started with listening to sports broadcasts on the radio, then sports talk radio, then talk radio, but now I can fully focus my attention in on the words I'm hearing without my mind wandering and the images I conjure from an audiobook are at least as vivid as the ones from text reading, and at times I actually prefer it.

But as much as I can sit on the couch all day or in bed for hours reading a physical book, I can't do that at all with an audiobook. A book provides its own physicality as a reference point and is fully satisfying in and of itself, but to consume an audiobook I have to be moving: driving, hiking, cleaning, or the like. I need some kind of physical activity as a reference point, and then that activity and the locations involved become part of the experience for me. They become an indelible reference point for those words.

From the older blog post I reference in this one, A Few Thoughts on Memory:

"Recently I was showing a friend a walking trail at a park I hadn't visited for at least 4-5 years, and in the middle of our walk I blurted out, "I listened to football here." I couldn't remember the exact details--probably, I believe, because it had happened multiple times and I was remembering more than one thing--but I knew without a doubt I'd had sports radio playing on my headphones while doing the same thing in the past. It was such a vivid sensation, I had to share. That wasn't the first time it's happened. I make a habit of listening to audiobooks on long walks, hikes, and runs. Later, whether it's the very next time I use that same section of trail or road or months or even years later, I'll suddenly have a vivid memory of a scene or section from a book I was listening to when at that spot previously. The physical location is somehow linked to the listening experience and the activity.

"Those events seem to be spontaneous triggers for specific memories. The same can happen with particular smells, songs, and other sensory associations. More often, I'll be trying to remember something and coming up blank at first, yet I'll know the memory or information is rattling around in my brain somewhere. If another person is involved, I'll ask them to keep describing the situation in different ways, until they say the one thing that clicks and suddenly I'll have access to the memory. It indeed was in there, I just had to figure out how to find it. As a librarian, I think of it as needing to find the right keyword for my search to bring up the results I want. I know the the information exists, I just have to figure out how it was classified, labeled, and stored so I can find it, and sometimes I have to try multiple searches before I can figure it out.

"I'm not crazy, because that's the way memory works. And once you know that's how memory works, there are tricks you can teach yourself to make it work better. The sensory associations are key, particularly images. When I remember the football and audiobooks on my walks, I'm not remembering the words I was hearing, but the images I created in my head when I heard them. Those images are linked to the images of my physical surroundings when they played through my head, so when I revisit the places the other images come with them. The human brain's ability to recall images is much more vast than most people realize, so if you want to remember something they key is to associate it to an image."


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