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Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

19 March 2012

From Healthland:

I received a Kindle for my birthday, and enjoying “light reading,” in addition to the dense science I read for work, I immediately loaded it with mysteries by my favorite authors. But I soon found that I had difficulty recalling the names of characters from chapter to chapter. At first, I attributed the lapses to a scary reality of getting older — but then I discovered that I didn’t have this problem when I read paperbacks.

When I discussed my quirky recall with friends and colleagues, I found out I wasn’t the only one who suffered from “e-book moments.” Online, I discovered that Google’s Larry Page himself had concerns about research showing that on-screen reading is measurably slower than reading on paper.

. . . .

However, there are some subtle distinctions that favor print, which may matter in the long run. In one study involving psychology students, the medium did seem to matter. “We bombarded poor psychology students with economics that they didn’t know,” she says. Two differences emerged. First, more repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information.

Second, the book readers seemed to digest the material more fully. Garland explains that when you recall something, you either “know” it and it just “comes to you” — without necessarily consciously recalling the context in which you learned it — or you “remember” it by cuing yourself about that context and then arriving at the answer. “Knowing” is better because you can recall the important facts faster and seemingly effortlessly.

“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time,” says Garland. “It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.”

. . . .

E-books, however, provide fewer spatial landmarks than print, especially pared-down versions like the early Kindles, which simply scroll through text and don’t even show page numbers, just the percentage already read. In a sense, the page is infinite and limitless, which can be dizzying. 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.

Link to the rest at Healthland


20 Comments to “Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?”

  1. I had noticed it, but attributed it to the fact that I can start the next book as soon as I read the last line of the current one. For print books, I will usually put the book in the bookcase, or back-to-library-stack, and take some time to digest the story. I have found myself jumbling up back stories and confusing characters because I’ve been flying through a lot of reading lately. Nice to know I’m not the only one.

  2. I’ve always been in the CRS camp. I have to keep lists of books I’ve read so that I’m not buying duplicates or checking the same book out of the library time after time.

    With ebooks I miss the visual clues a printed book offers–I often forget the title of the book I happen to be reading. I am learning, finally, to use the highlighter function on the Kindle, otherwise I have a devil of a time finding passages again. More sophisticated categories help, too.

    As for the “knowing” versus the “remembering” part? I haven’t really noticed a difference, but then again I haven’t thought about the difference. Interesting.

  3. I think this is very true — particularly for academic reading. I come from an academic background, and I can see in my mind where ideas are located spatially on pages of books. If asked about a particular idea, I can tell you which book it’s in, approximately where it’s at, on which side when the book is open, and where on the page. I can’t imagine doing the same thing with ebooks.

    However, I’ve found that I don’t have this problem reading fiction on ebooks. Characters, settings, and other details don’t generally slip my mind.

    • This is pretty much the case with me as well. I consume information in different ways when I’m reading for information vs entertainment. I can still remember the appearance of a page in a high school science book that had information on it I needed for a quiz. (It was about amino acids.) I haven’t seen that book in a good 15 years or more. But I read fiction in a sequential format, not a random access format. I have little problem remembering the names of characters or locations but I can’t generally tell you “oh sure, this scene happened about here in the story” because I have no need to. I think it has more to do with what kind of information you consider important enough to index in your brain than anything else.

  4. Well, the only information in the article relevant to answering to the question in the title is this:

    Kate Garland, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester in England, is one of the few scientists who has studied this question and reviewed the data. She found that when the exact same material is presented in both media, there is no measurable difference in student performance.

    The rest of the book is a personal problem, followed by a non-sequitur, followed by some poorly documented research, followed by some informed speculation.

    As is typical for the popular press, the most important detail is ignored. What were the effect sizes that these studies measured? If it took students longer to master a subject, we really need to know how much longer. If it took more re-readings, how many more.

    All in all, this is a pretty useless article.

  5. When I read things like this my initial instinct is it is written by a Luddite who “loves the smell of paper” and will never consider a book to be real unless it is paper. But Larry Page obviously isn’t anti-technology and the talk about spatial landmarks struck a chord with me.

    I find that when I pick up my Kindle to start reading I’ll often look at the page of text and be disoriented (for lack of a better term) as to what I’m reading. If I hit the menu button to get the title of the book I’ll think, “oh yeah, I remember now,” and get reoriented. The major points of what I was reading will come back to me, I’ll start reading and the specifics of what was happening when I last stopped will also come back. With the exception of the last part, which happened with paper books, this is something new with ebooks.

    With paper books I think this reorientation took place before we first looked at the page. The title, the picture or design on the cover, and possibly a chapter heading at the top of the page all helped with this reorientation or getting us back to where we were when we stopped before, so that when we started reading the text we would have “reset” to where we were when we ended our last reading session.

    I can see, given the strange way the mind stores and retains information, how these spatial landmarks wouldn’t be available (as Alice says, it is almost as if we’re reading one long endless book), so that we wouldn’t be retaining information as well.

  6. William’s right. Every single thing I’ve read on this is not well studied.

    The truth is, if you are not used to reading in a medium, you get distracted and you haven’t adapted your skills yet. And being able to do things like page back is not a matter of retention. It’s just an adaptation to form.

    For instance, I’ve been reading a lot of golden age mystery — the b-list kind where they introduce 15 suspects all with similar names and attributes. Normally I’d be paging back throughout the first quarter of the book, trying to figure out if Spencer Allenson was the guy with the dog, or if that was Allen Spencerton.

    With ebooks, it’s inconvenient to page back so much, so the first time I read one of these, I got frustrated and I went back and wrote down all the names…. but thereafter, I just made a point of noting and remembering who is who in the first place.

    So what started as a problem with retention, ended up with me retaining more, not less.

    • It’s just an adaptation to form.
      This. When I was in college, I recall reading about a study that took place shortly after the advent of digital watches. It found that people remembered the time more accurately when they looked at an analog clock/watch. But a decade a or so later, when people had generally become accustomed to looking at digital readouts, there was no discernible difference.

  7. I have never had this weird problem but then I never paid attention to page numbers or placement of paragraphs on a certain page. One reason is I have favorite stories that I will read wherever I find them — in hardcover, in paperback, on Gutenberg e-text. Page numbers are different in different print editions of books and of course non-existent on the computer. It’s just not how I read. If the story is memorable I remember it. On my Kindle I don’t even use my bookmark thing all that much — it saves where I last was reading anyway.

    • It’s the same for me. I’ve never had any problem. I’ve never looked for visual cues or anything. I just read what’s on the screen to find out where I left off, and continue.

      I may forget some details from Chapter 2 when I’m on Chapter 30, but I had that problem with print books too.

  8. I’ll third William’s comment.

    I decided to find what Kate Garland had written on the subject, to see if I could find these studies so vaguely referenced. I found this: http://www.princeton.edu/~sswang/Noyesa_Garland_computer_vs_paper.pdf .

    Massively simplifying I suspect what Garland said was along the lines of “SOME studies show…” because that’s what the paper says. It’s a review of paper vs computer cognition studies. Some say paper is better, some say they’re about the same, and a couple say computer is better. The only (very weak) correlation is that the earlier the study (starting in 1981) the more likely it was that paper did better. Oh, and Garland’s paper notes that an unanswered question is whether the flickering and other factors of CRTs is a part of the problem.

    I look forward to seeing the results of studies that use readers meant to eliminate the flicker, devices like the Kindle and the Nook.

  9. I think people read ebooks really really fast. I don’t know if they’re skimming or not paying attention or whatall but I do know that I’ve gotten reviews complaining about an element in my book that isn’t in my book. I’m sure that my not following up on and fully explaining Viva’s divorce from David really did spoil their reading experience but Viva was never married to David and that was made clear from the git-go.

  10. In a novel, I never used visual cues, and I actually like the % bar at the bottom of the page. When I talk about books I’m reading, I might say “I’m half-way through a great book.”

    I don’t say, “I’m on page 150 of a 300 page book, and it’s great.”

    The study seems to focus on textbooks, and in that case, I would agree that visual cues do help. For instance, often information around a photograph or diagram in a textbook is info found on a test of the chapter, so I’ve always read that stuff more closely. The picture with the text also reinforces the information. I’ve never looked at a text book on a Kindle or iPad, but if it’s formatted correctly, I think my brain would work the same way on a tablet/ereader as it does with a paper text.

  11. The difference listed isn’t my personal experience. And I’ve read a lot in both mediums. I’m equally confused on paper or ereader. lol

    But there was no solid proof or explanation of the supposed difference. But that’s not to say for some the difference doesn’t exist. Only a story here and there that it does without looking at the underlying reasons isn’t a full study.

    But logically, both are words on a page and should be the same in reading them as far as the actual reading of the word.

  12. I agree with William and Camille. Also, there’s something missing from the article that seems to me to be a glaring omission. Salavitz says that she was using a Kindle–she doesn’t say whether it was a Fire or an e-ink Kindle, but that may not be relevant. I see no indication as to whether the study or anything else distinguished between e-ink screens and backlit screens. It’s been my experience that people who haven’t used e-ink screens don’t understand how they’re different from ordinary computer screens, but to me, there’s a huge difference! And if there’s a difference between retention when reading from paper and reading from a computer screen, then reading from an e-ink screen has to fall somewhere in there, too. But its existence isn’t even acknowledged in the article. How can I take research on screens seriously when it doesn’t even consider different types of screens?

    I’d also like to note that I remember attempting to recall information for science tests in high school by thinking back to the context and the page of the textbook the information was on. It never helped.

    • Gordon Fridenberg

      My Wife sometimes has trouble understanding something when reading it on the computer and will print it, she has no problem with the printed version. She does not experience this when reading on a e-ink Kindle.

  13. I have a pretty strong spatial relations sense, so the picturing a page and where the information was on it/in the book resonates with me. On the other hand, I do all my news/political reading online and often think very critically about what is being said (and not said) so I am used to reading electronically with full engagement rather than on cruise control. I wonder how much of this phenom is just from people associating digital reading with stuff to be skimmed (like gossip articles)?

  14. My gut says this is a matter of practice.

    If you have spent the last 20+ years doing learning from print textbooks, are suddenly handed your first Kindle, and are told to try to learn from a Kindle textbook, I’m going to guess there’s going to be a learning curve involved in that process.

    When I first started reading on Kindle a bit over a year ago, I had very little trouble getting into fiction books. No trouble, really. But much broader issues reading nonfiction there, for some reason.

    Today, no issues at all with either one. No retention issues. No trouble remembering plots/picking up stories where I left off. No trouble remembering data or other nonfiction details.

    I suspect this is the result of having read over 50 books in Kindle format over the intervening 14 months.

  15. Kindle and the like will never be good for academic books until they support footnotes or some equivalent. (With quick access like mouse-over on a webpage, I’m sorry but endnotes in a ebook just don’t cut it.)

    But I don’t buy it as an excuse for his inability to remember what he’s just read. I’ve always had that problem to some extent. The medium doesn’t matter. Unless I make a deliberate effort to review the story in my mind afterwards it fades quickly like a dream. But it’s not completely gone. I may lack recall, but I definitely have recognition. Start rereading something accidentally and the story comes back to me very quickly.

    As far as the spacial memory thing, I’ve had the same experience others here have mentioned. Recalling that thing I wanted to go back to was on the left hand page, one-quarter of the way down the page, etc. Sometimes I miss the ability to fan back searching for something that way. But being able to type in a word and search the entire book for a list of all instances with a few lines of context is a pretty good trade.

    • Kevin O. McLaughlin

      Kindle supports a new form of footnoting very well, actually. The best example I’ve seen was in one of Konrath’s books, if I recall right.

      The author linked characters and special references from earlier stories in the main text, using hyperlinks. Click the hyperlink, and you were brought to an appendix at the end of the book with more info about that person or event – backstory, basically. And there was a link to bring you right back where you’d been in the story.

      The same technique could be used for “footnotes”. Hyperlink the applicable text to carry the reader to an end section with the footnote, complete with a link that brings you right back where you were. Should work perfectly for footnoting.

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