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Reading and Memory

kindleA recent piece by Alison Flood in The Guardian brought up the issue of whether comprehension is lower when reading on a Kindle e-reader. Flood cites the work of researcher Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway, who recently tested 50 people on their comprehension (plot, setting, etc.) of an Elizabeth George short story. Half of those tested read the story on a Kindle and half read it on paper.

Lo and behold, those who read the piece on a Kindle came up short when they were examined on the particulars of George’s story. Does this surprise anyone? I don’t think so.

Truth be told, our memories have, through the centuries, become increasingly downsized and outsourced. It’s true that back in the age of Homer (memory’s halcyon days), traveling bards memorized long epical poems in their entirety – and some mnemonic contortionists could recite epics like the Iliad backwards.

But even those bards used various  “distributed memory sourcing” techniques. In particular they (and their followers in the centuries to come) deployed the mnemonic strategy of loci et imagines. This is a technique where one placed what one wanted to memorize in a familiar place or attached it to a familiar object. That world is far removed from our own, and indeed it must have been a magical place, one that abounded in memories – but it does underline the fact that humans have historically created or found storage devices, both for mental and physical objects.

Scholars have posited that this kind of memory, which characterizes oral cultures, was pre-analytical, pre-logical, that it was external in nature. But that changed when books started to be produced and knowledge dramatically increased; memory migrated from the world to the page. The new “print” paradigm demanded that we only know how books were categorized; of course it helped if we knew what book specific information could be found in – but it wasn’t necessary. Freed from the taxing demands of personal memorization, our minds were able to, as Walter Ong, Robert Logan, and others have argued, to become more logical, more analytical – in short, the rise of books also witnessed the rise of the rational mind.

 

sleep_of_reason Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

Of course this is all dialectical in the sense that one paradigm – oral, print, digital – doesn’t replace an earlier one but rather subsumes it in itself and resolves the tensions and weaknesses of the previous paradigm. Having a good memory is still important – indeed, just a generation ago reciting long poems by memory was still a staple of high-school English. And recently I heard Peter O’Toole in a Fresh Air interview reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets by memory. A magnificent performance!

So, back to the Kindle and the digital age. I wonder if the Kindle doesn’t suffer from the same cognitive ailments that plague computers: namely, automation complacency and automation bias. The former refers to those moments when a computer lulls us into believing that it has everything “handled” (including memory). The latter refers to the tendency to place too much faith in believing what the computer says or does is accurate. In an article in The Atlantic entitled “All Can Be Lost: The Risk Of Putting Our Knowledge In The Hands Of Machines” Nicholas Carr chillingly points out what can happen when we let the computer do too much for us – quite simply, we forget how to do things. And when it comes to navigation (airlines, trains, ships, cars, etc.) or the operation of large equipment that can have tragic consequences.

But what does this mean for reading – specifically for reading on devices such as the Kindle or the iPad? Do readers subconsciously change their reading habits when reading on a device? Do they not concern themselves with the details per se (since the device supposedly is) but rather with a holistic or even lateral view? Could reading on a device such as the Kindle increase empathy for characters, for the human condition? Could reading on the Kindle be, in fact, a radical act, one that challenges the “dominant” mode of thinking and remembering? Certainly changes are afoot – and in the same manner that the environment worked on and reshaped our genetic map through time, our increasing reliance on devices (and not just the Kindle and iPad but all of the devices that make up the Internet of Things) may well do the same thing to our cognitive capacities.

Of course some people will be upset. Paradigm change always has its naysayers. Think of how many people were burned at the stake or in a barrel by the Church for having a copy of the Bible (or even quoting from it). Learning and thinking for oneself have always threatened those in power – but, as Nietzsche reminded us, now more than ever it’s time to live dangerously!

 

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