You Won't Remember This Article, Or Anything Else You Read Online, Unless You Print It Out

It has to do with cartographic clues, cognitive overhead, and--oh, hell, just print it already, would you?!

Do you understand and remember more after reading from a page than reading from a screen? As Ferris Jabr reports for Scientific American, the book itself binds your understanding.

Reading is "topographic"

As you read something, you structure out its content in your mind, Jabr says; you're making a map of the meaning of the text. This process is tied to the physical object that you're interacting with: just as you mentally map a trail as you ascend a mountain, your brain plots the line-by-line journey your eyes walk through a book.

This is why, studies suggest, if you're asked to recall a specific piece of information in a text, you'll remember where on the page you were when you read it. Jabr uses a bit of Pride and Prejudice to make the point:

We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.

The space of understanding

Holding a book grants you a tactile sense of textual topography.

As Jabr notes, you have physical markers like left page facing the right page, the hanging corners, and the shifting of the weight in your hands as you advance from cover to cover. This gives you a sense of narrative context: holding a book, it's obvious where the individual page relates to the whole of the text, which makes it easier to create that mental map of the text's meaning.

We don't get this meaning-anchoring sense on screens. The infinite scroll of a website or clicked pagination of an e-reader doesn't supply the same cartographic clues, Jabr says. When you read on a smartphone, tablet, or monitor, you only have access to the handful of paragraphs present on the screen with the rest of the text is hidden behind scroll bar--which means you miss out on the contextual information you receive ambiently by holding a book in your hands.

This means your brain doesn't have the extra cognitive overhead incurred by trying to place where you are in the text. Coupled with the distraction that screens suggest, we can see why holding a book in your hands helps you to hold it in your memory.

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens

[Hat Tip: The Brilliant Report]

[Image: Flickr user Sean Rogers]

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22 Comments

  • debsaid

    Although I am a fan of books, I must say, I remember what I read if I had a strong reaction to it and/or spent some time thinking about it afterwards. Doesn't matter if it is a book or online article.

    That being said, I think reading an article from a large computer monitor is very different than reading from a smartphone! You do get some textual topography and meaning-anchoring on a monitor since you can see large chunks of text at the same time. At least for short articles. I do agree that for an e-book this wouldn't hold true, though. Books all the way.

  • Tazzz

    We have found that our son doesn't recall as much information that was presented to him online as he does to physical textbooks.  We thought we were covered with the online school that also had printed material.  This was true in the early grades but with middle school we soon found this was no longer the case but that was because MOST of the printed material was telling where to look online or recall what had been covered in the online class.  We had to go to strictly printed schooling which hasn't been easy for almost everything to today has some part that is online!

  • Ashwani Gupta

    Although I agree & recall that when reading a fictional novel or college text book the page (recto or verso) or the text location does sometimes helps in remembering. 

    However, we all read e-mails, sometimes looong and many many per day, we seem to remember them just fine. Not to mention the articles on websites like Fast co. etc. If the hypothesis presented is 100% accurate, then I shouldn't be able to recall anything I have just read, after few days..:)

    The feel of a hard bound surely feels great, but many a times it's just a case of economy, both in terms of money & space. Prints occupy lot of space and also are costly, not to mention ridiculously wasteful.I am completely not in favor of the archaic way of printing what is already available online! You can as well create digital folders and refer when ever you need, indexing is also a piece of cake. Plus, it saves countless trees.

    Cheers!

  • Kim Bentz

    I have long known this in an instinctive way, but without the appropriate intellectual understanding to properly express this to others.  I wish online Universities understood this!  I can't tell you how much time and effort I expend (and ink, paper and money) printing my e-materials so that I can RETAIN the information and, yes, find it again.  I wonder though, if it is different for a younger generation which may have some other type of internal mapping going on.

  • Shell Haffner

    We are human and simply put, print creates a human connection. And
    even in today’s seemingly digital-first world, print is still very relevant.
    According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Reading, reading
    online may not be as effective or rewarding as the printed word – furthering
    the point of this article. That same study found that physical manipulation
    (i.e. scrolling) distracts our focus from what we are reading resulting in an
    inability to absorb digital media in the way we would absorb print media. This
    same notion is proving itself to be true in business as well. A study by
    McPheters & Company used 30-second TV ads, full-page four-color magazine
    ads, and Internet banner ads in standard sizes, and employed eye-tracking
    software to determine if Internet ads were actually seen by respondents. Study
    results found that the magazine ad had 83% of the value of a 30-second TV spot
    while a typical Internet banner ad had 16% of the value of a 30-second TV
    commercial. A pretty drastic difference. 

     

    In short, many studies are pointing to a physical touch of paper
    helps create a connection in our brains. As humans isn’t connecting with each
    other what we all want?

     

    That's not to say that digital is bad. All signs point to print
    being able to peacefully coexist with digital in all facets of life. Indeed,
    digital adds an extra dimension. Another sensory input to the brain. Together,
    print and digital can enhance communications of either medium alone. I discussed
    the above points and more with Gordon Kaye, editor of Graphic Design Magazine
    USA and some other industry professionals in our latest "Ask the
    Experts" episode - some of the insights might surprise you. The replay can be found on the Xerox YouTube page.

     

    Sincerely human,

    Shell Haffner

    Xerox Corp.

     

  • InCestusWeTrust

    Nicely summarized, I have seen several studies on how memories link to sensory stimuli in studies of PTSD or other cataclysmic events, though typically the cues to bring on flashbacks are olfactory, gustatory rather than tactile. Because we tend to process the non-visual (and to a lesser extent non-auditory) environment with less of our conscious mind, we can be more easily (excuse the pun) blind-sided by memories linked to these stimuli.

    As a librarian, I do have a dog in this fight but must point out that the author did not say learning is impossible with e-readers or even quantify a retention ratio, merely highlighted the advantages of kinesthetic/tactile response without a numeric statistic. Not all people learn best with any particular sensory stimuli or fail to learn without it.

    Any disciples of Oliver Sacks out there who want to chime in with studies of people who learn with their elbows?

  • Shell Haffner

    We are human and simply put, print creates a human connection. And even in today’s seemingly digital-first world, print is still very relevant. According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Reading, reading online may not be as effective or rewarding as the printed word – furthering the point of this article. That same study found that physical manipulation (i.e. scrolling) distracts our focus from what we are reading resulting in an inability to absorb digital media in the way we would absorb print media. This same notion is proving itself to be true in business as well. A study by McPheters & Company used 30-second TV ads, full-page four-color magazine ads, and Internet banner ads in standard sizes, and employed eye-tracking software to determine if Internet ads were actually seen by respondents. Study results found that the magazine ad had 83% of the value of a 30-second TV spot while a typical Internet banner ad had 16% of the value of a 30-second TV commercial. A pretty drastic difference. 

    In short, many studies are pointing to a physical touch of paper helps create a connection in our brains. As humans isnt connecting with each other what we all want?

    That's not to say that digital is bad. All signs point to print being able to peacefully coexist with digital in all facets of life. Indeed, digital adds an extra dimension. Another sensory input to the brain. Together, print and digital can enhance communications of either medium alone. We discussed the above points and more with Gordon Kaye, editor of Graphic Design Magazine USA and some other industry professionals in our latest "Ask the Experts" episode - some of the insights might surprise you. If interested, check out the replay here: http://bit.ly/17vq496 

    Sincerely human,
    Shell Haffner
    Xerox Corp.

  • www.codedcontainer.com

    There are emerging technologies on the web that are making reading articles easier on the eyes. One such technology, Magic Scroll, allows you to read a page without being distracted. It is such technology like this that is changing the way our mind can "map" our place on a document. Great post!

  • brem

    Like many others, I am skeptical of this article / study as well. There are instances of specific text I've read when I remember the "physical markers", particularly if I am trying to find the exact text again. But lack of "physical markers" doesn't mean I don't remember what I read or where I read it.

    As an example, I remember lots of things from Fast Company that are relevant or important to me at a particular time and context, but I don't necessarily recall if I read it in print or on the website (nor does it matter), although I do remember if it was Fast Company or some other website or magazine.

  • Maxwell S. Hammer

     "It's like the feeling at the end of the page
    when you realize you don't know what you just read."
                             - Missing Persons

  • Judi Hughes

    Like Susan Bainbridge, I, too, am an anomaly.  Perhaps mybrain is simply hard-wired differently, but I have no difficulty remembering what I've read, regardless of the source media.  Our school district is implementing the use of iPads, and my 
    son comprehends and retains material better with the use of electronic media.  
    My Statistics professor told us almost anything can be proved through the use of statistics...
    I'd be interested in seeing the report of the study in a peer-reviewed journal.

  • Doc B

     Judi, your prof was wrong.  Nothing can be proved through the use of statistics.  He just doesn't understand the difference between 'proof' and 'persuasion'.

  • oacastillog

    an alternative to "print it" is to make notes (not necessarily on paper); by doing this you really "print it" but in your memory. Has just worked fine for me.

  • Mack

    This article is the first I have read contrasting reading a physical book vs. a virtual one, for example. I had never heard of 'cartographic clues' and 'cognitive overhead'. I suppose those are thousand-dollar buzzwords in some, ah, circles. But I do know this; long ago I realized that I remember much more when I am physically holding and reading, but that is not all of it; holding and reading a printed document is a richer experience for me. For me, reading a physical book is akin to fine dining; reading it digitally is akin to cheap fast-food.

  • Michele Green

    Just as I thought, When I want to remember an article I always print it out. Great study

  • Gabriel Mendoza

    Precisely why I print anything worth reading and archive it in binders. I have many, many binders. 

    Some people just don't understand...

  • Susan Bainbridge

    Interesting study and perhaps I'm a anomaly,  but I haven't printed anything for more than 5 years. I've written a novel, completed a degree, written research papers, and I remember! Why would I go back to wasting paper and destroying forests? Simply don't agree with Ferris Jabr.