Most of what I know isn’t in my head. It’s out there in my books. I know how to do a lot of integrals in calculus, for example. But, really, what I mean by that is that I know where my book of integrals is, and I know where in the book any particular method is. I know all that stuff in all those books in my house because I can find my way there.
Books in a bookshelf possess lots of visual cues, so I can quickly find my way to the right book — “Oh, it’s on the bottom left of the shelf by the window in the living room, just below that big blue art book.”
And once I find the book, when I open it up I can use visual cues within it to find my way to the right page. After all, it’s not as if I remember the page number. No, I remember roughly where it is in the book, roughly what the page looks like, and roughly what the surrounding pages might look like. Pages in a book might not initially seem to have a look, but they very often do. There are often figures, or tables, or unique and recognizable features to the way the paragraphs are aligned. These visuo-spatial cues guide me further and further along to the goal, the piece of my knowledge out there in my library.
Mess with my library and books, and you mess with my brain.
And, this is a good way to organize one’s “external brain” because it’s like real life and the way we navigate the world: We use visual cues to make our way to things, and so (personal) libraries and physical books harness these natural instincts.
This sort of “harnessing”, or “nature-harnessing”, is akin to more general harnessing that happens to our brains, taking old evolved human capabilities and transforming them into new modern powers, something that’s the topic of my earlier book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
For example, in my research and earlier book, The Vision Revolution, I have argued that writing itself has culturally evolved to have the visual structure found in natural scenes, and that’s why we can read at all — we can read because writing came to look like something we’re already brilliant at visually processing. So, when I get to the piece of information in my book in my personal library, that writing also harnesses our natural visual-object-recognition talents by looking like nature.
Libraries and books nature-harness us, from the navigation process the physical-library-filled-with-physical-books demands to the reading of the writing itself.
E-readers, on the other hand, dispense with this navigation process. Whether it’s e-readers or pretty much anything on the web, the way we get to the information isn’t by spatially navigating our way there, but, instead, by “beaming” directly there like in Star Trek. Just type in the coordinates — “Captain, beam me over to the methods of integration for inverse trigonometric forms!” — and you get transported directly to the information. Beamed directly to the book, and beamed (via an intra-book search) to the piece of information.
That kind of direct beaming sounds good at first, and maybe — just maybe — it is, but note that the information’s address doesn’t get nicely put in your brain, not in the way it does for my library. For my library, that information has a physical location, and I’m good at remembering where things are in the real, physical, world. But in let’s-beam-any-old-place-any-old-time world, the information comes with no address, and thus no easy way to organize it into my head.
Now, I say “maybe” above because I suspect that e-readers are harnessing us in some way that I have not wrapped my head around. That is, with vibrant technological advances, we often find that the technology is implicitly figuring out new ways of harnessing us; new ways of getting us to do things we’re brilliant at, but now those brilliant things amount to information-gathering rather than whatever those brilliant things originally were for. So, while I’m pointing out potentially unappreciated advantages to traditional books, I don’t actually know that they’re better than whatever e-readers are harnessing, and I suspect e-readers are doing harnessing of their own.
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.
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