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?!

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

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.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.