Have you read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22? Great book. I read it when I first started working at Random House back in the 90’s. There’s this bit that’s always stuck with me. Yossarian (the protagonist) is begging his boss to do . . . something important and perhaps even life saving . . . I don’t recall exactly what it is. But I remember that Yossarian’s boss has nothing to offer him but helplessness—he understands that the situation is terrible, but there’s nothing he can do. I remember feeling like there was a great, grim, angsty truth there: we are all helpless, no matter how much we pretend to be in control of our lives. It’s about a third of the way through the book, at the end of a chapter. Wait, I have a copy of it here somewhere. I can tell you the exact page, I think. Found it. It’s the last page of chapter nine—page 129 in the Everyman’s Library edition (the only edition I currently own). Yossarian is a war pilot. He’s begging his superior, Major Major, to send him home, but Major Major can’t because he has orders from his superior, Colonel Korn. Now, how did I find that passage without knowing a single word of the exact text I was searching for, some 20+ years (yikes!) after reading it? For that matter, how does anyone remember what they read at all? Turns out we use the same tool to remember both the location of the text within the larger work and its general impression on us (if not the full content): mental maps.
When we read, we make a map in our minds, with each bit of information and its location within the flow of the text. It doesn’t matter if it’s a whole book, a short news article, or a tweet. We build these structures instinctually, without even realizing we’re doing it; they’re very much akin to the unconscious mental maps we construct as we navigate through the physical world (Saj & Barisnikov, 2015). The most obvious indication of this mental mapping is when we flip back and forth within a text work to find a particular passage, like I did in my Catch-22 example. What’s less obvious, though, is even more fascinating: we build a memory palace for everything we read, and we rarely realize it.
That same mental map of the text’s physical structure also serves as a subliminally created ‘memory aid,’ much like a memory palace, for the events and ideas conveyed by the text (Glenberg, Meyer, & Lindem, 1987). In effect, not only do I remember that Major Major admits his helplessness at the end of a chapter toward the beginning of the book, but I remember that he admits it at all in large part because I remember where in the book it happens. When we read onscreen, though, the crucial associations between text location and text meaning can be compromised easily, and our memory palace runs the risk of turning into a memory house of cards.
Onscreen reading works great for short text—what Naomi Baron refers to as “gulps” of information (Baron, 2015). Any reading where text is topographically fixed—where there’s no need to scroll or otherwise move text—maintains the structural integrity of our mental map. Think Tweets, Facebook posts and other forms that communicate their full content on a single un-scrolled screen. But when the full informational content of the text outgrows a single screen, reading gets tricky. Without the firmly fixed topography printed pages impart to longer text, it’s much more difficult to construct a mental representation of its content. Every time text is scrolled, enlarged or otherwise manipulated, the mental map we’ve created is effectively upended (if only slightly). The more the reader scrolls, the greater the damage to their mental map, which in turn poses serious challenges in our ability to comprehend and retain what we’re reading (Mangen et al., 2013). Searching in digital texts would seem like one factor that aided in reading retention. Indeed, readers on screens can search for passages, but only if they firmly know something about the text in question—such as some words contained in the passage—which is great for information retrieval and ‘power browsing.’ But readers can’t noodle their way through the text with wordless, fuzzier recollections, which is the way we really remember much of what we read (Dyson & Haselgrove, 2001).
Content providers are learning what works for readers and are optimizing their applications with structure in mind. E-book applications, such as Amazon’s Kindle or Apple’s iBook, mitigate some of the screen’s side effects by recreating the physical book’s page motif. By serving information in a ‘paged’ format rather than in a scrolling window, there is more fixity to the text which does aid in reading (Mangen et al., 2013). Recognizing that visual interruptions in the text are a huge issue for reader focus (especially on multi-purpose devices), e-textbook publishers are rethinking content strategies, including removing interactive features from the flow of the text. They’re also permitting students to print pages for closer, more cognitively supportive reading.
People read all day, every day—to be informed, engaged and entertained. By understanding the links between structure and reading comprehension and retention, digital content providers can give their audience a set of tools that enable a more effective flow of information.
Baron, N. S. (2015). Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dyson, M., & Haselgrove, M. (2001). The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from screen. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 54(4), 585–612. http://doi.org/10.1006/ijhc.2001.0458
Glenberg, A. M., Meyer, M., & Lindem, K. (1987). Mental models contribute to foregrounding during text comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 26(1), 69–83. http://doi.org/10.1016/0749-596X(87)90063-5
Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61–68. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2012.12.002
Payne, S. J., & Reader, W. R. (2006). Constructing structure maps of multiple on-line texts. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 64(5), 461–474. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2005.09.003
Rothkopf, E. Z. (1971). Incidental memory for location of information in text. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 10(6), 608–613. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-5371(71)80066-X
Saj, A., & Barisnikov, K. (2015). Influence of spatial perception abilities on reading in school-age children. Cogent Psychology, 2(1), 1049736. http://doi.org/10.1080/23311908.2015.1049736