Do I Want My Brain in Physical Books, or e-Books?

By Mark Changizi | October 28, 2013 7:31 pm

e-readers versus books

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 FeetThe Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.


Image by Viacheslav Nikolaenko / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: e-books, harnessed, writing
  • psistudent

    I don’t usually comment on the Internet but Sir, please work on your writing skills. Halfway through this post I still kept wondering what it is about. In what way are e-books worse than physical books? If you have nothing better to say than to vent your opinions and habits without providing a relatable conclusion or suggestion to the reader, it would be better not to write anything at all.

    • David Shultz

      I disagree. The purpose of this article was very clear to me, though a bit nuanced perhaps. I mean that as a compliment though. Just because he didn’t beam you right to his thesis in the first sentences, doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting and valid argument. Not everything needs a prescriptive conclusion either; sometimes stuff is just cool to think about…which how I felt about this article.

  • carmen webster buxton

    Ask any librarian and they will tell you that one problem with this kind of “physical memory” is, it’s often wrong. People will ask for a specific book and insist the cover is blue; when the book is found, the cover turns out to be green.

    I do think makers of ereaders and ereader apps need to work at making it easier to browse ebooks and not just search them. But one of the the best things about ebooks is you can highlight text and then see all your highlighting at once. That’s a new way to retain the important stuff!

  • mmcpher

    “and I suspect e-readers are doing harnessing of their own.”
    I do as well. I happen to be in the process of trying out some new online search resources, which meant I have left a familiar UI, with all of its learned and embedded visual clues and signposts, and now am trying to learn a different, yet similar UI. It is all accomplished by visual clues and prompts which had become so second-nature at the old site as to be almost invisible. Until they were no longer there at the new site. The reason that it’s possible to make a switch more quickly online, than it might be if I were changing from one physical library to another, is because the primary online tool is the search engine, which you enter as text. We have, to a large degree, moved passed the need to know where to search online, and can proceed directly to what we are looking for. I don’t need to recall the color or shape or font of a particular book or page to find it online. It is as if we all have photographic memories.

  • Colin

    Both mediums have their advantages and disadvantages. I suspect a physical book will have better information retention rates of the two – has anyone done research on this?

  • Katherine Collmer

    Mark, This post speaks to the very essence of my struggles with reading on line! I find myself using up valuable tree resources by printing everything that I want to absorb – either immediately or later. i have a problem with filing on any terms (paper or computerized) and my desk is stacked high with reading material. The very concept of eye-hand fine motor skills relates to your “hook” to the physical aspect of reading – holding the book in our hands. The Book, not the Kindle or Nook or iPad! The physical connection with the paper, the colors, the texture and the turning of pages provide a kinesthetic sense of gathering the information through our fingertips. I do agree with some of the other comments that e-readers most likely harness their information in a different way, possibly because they are much less kinesthetic than I and much more visual. Great post. Will use this information for future posts of mine:) Thanks!

  • Marie Heartwood

    I’ve been working in the IT field since before it was called IT, almost
    30 years now. The very problem the author has with computers, I have
    with books. The very things the author says are good about books, are
    the very things I like about computers.

    I have a library, much like the author’s. It always takes me a long time to find anything. Knowing where a book is, clutters my mind with useless information that is better stored in something like a card catalog. I’d rather be getting my work done, than spend the time looking for what I need to get the job done.

    Just the thoughts of an old techie.

  • Paul

    I think time will prove that the electronic means of information will prevail over physical books. So much information, so little time. It would be just too inefficient to use physical books our increasingly fast-paced world. We won’t have a choice but to rely on search engines and e-books. Someday, a child of the future will read this post, dreaming of a library full of books, something but of a fantasy. Then again… it’ll be a long long time before that happens… our current book filled libraries will turn into museums before that’ll ever happen.


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About Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of several books, including Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and The Vision Revolution.


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