Do we remember less when we read e-books? Some neuroscientists think we do, because e-books don’t provide the same sorts of spatial queues that printed books do. Apparently location cues are a very powerful aid to remembering things—and just the fact that we know about how far through a book those particular things are helps us fix them in our memory.

Jakob Nielsen, a Web “usability” expert and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, believes e-reading does lead to a different type of recall. “I really do think we remember less” from e-books, he says. “This is not something I have formally measured, but just based on both studies we’ve done looking at reading behavior on tablets and books and reading from regular computers.”

And searching by scrolling or typing is more distracting than flipping through pages to scan, Nielsen says.

They may have something there—I’m certainly not qualified to dispute the neurology. But they also note that e-books do have other advantages that can balance out the cognitive disadvantages, and there is undoubtedly a place for both forms of media—especially in education.

I also want to point out, as Nick Bilton did in his book I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works, that just because our brains didn’t “evolve” to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. Our brains didn’t evolve to read, either, or drive automobiles, or do any of the other things we’ve invented. Our brains did evolve to be adaptable, however—and that includes adapting to new technology.

(Found via The Daily Beast.)


  1. My experience is that some written books it does depend on where you are in the book physically to understand where in the story you are, some knowledge of “how many pages left” is part of the experience, it is less so in fiction than in non-fiction for me. I think the same idea would apply to books in a series, how many volumes are in the series or is the series still being written both change the readers expectations.

  2. I read a ton of fiction and a good amount of non-fiction. With both of those, I am finding that retention is BETTER reading an e-book. Is this because I have been doing it since 2008 with the first Kindle? I don’t remember experiencing any problems whatsoever when I switched. Now e-books are much easier for me than those in paper format.

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