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Are e-books bad for long-term memory?

Are e-books bad for long-term memory?

Posting in Technology

A growing body of research shows it is hard to retain facts and information when reading an e-book.

As the world becomes more and more digital, Kindles and Nooks are replacing classroom textbooks as learning aids. But new research shows that students should hold onto their hardcovers if they want to remember what they read.

Studies show that people have a harder time remembering facts and recalling the names of characters and details when reading an e-book. Researchers think this has to do with the way we evolved to remember things.

In one study by Kate Garland, a psychology lecturer at the University of Leicester in England, participants got a crash course in economics--a subject nobody understood. Those who were instructed to learn on an e-book required more repetition of the information before they could retain it. Participants learning on a hard book were able to understand the material more fully, meaning they were able to know the material so well that it just came to them.

Researchers think the problem with e-books could have to do with the lack of physical landmarks or associations that a person's memory can use to help recall information. After all, it is just a blank screen with words that you read down. There is no right or left side of the page and some e-books don't even have page numbers.

A recent article in Time magazine reports, "This seems irrelevant at first, but 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. That's why great memorizers since antiquity have used a trick called the 'method of loci' to associate facts they want to remember with places in spaces they already know, like rooms in their childhood home."

Other studies by Jakob Nielsen, Web usability consultant and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, show that smaller screens make reading material less memorable and typing or scrolling back to search for something is more distracting than turning the page. Nielsen told Time magazine: "Human short-term memory is extremely volatile and weak. That's why there's a huge benefit from being able to glance [across a page or two] and see [everything] simultaneously."

Further studies are needed to show the types of learning material best suited for digital books. But it does make me wonder if an e-book called Improve Your Memory actually works.

Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read  [Time]

Photo via flickr/Andrew Mason

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Amy Kraft

Weekend Editor

Contributing Editor Amy Kraft is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for New Scientist and DNAinfo and has produced podcasts for Scientific American's 60-Second-Science. She holds degrees from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure