Memory influenced by shape of your reading

Would this column read any better if it were written in the shape of a cow?

Probably not.

Most prose, thank goodness, constrains itself to simple rectangles with little variation: Maybe this article is hollowed out for a picture, maybe that article is notched to make way for an advertisement.

Despite the persistent use of rectangles to contain prose, not all quadrilaterals are created equal.

Imagine, dear reader, an article for this very newspaper written with only one word per line, stretching down the page in a tedious thread of a column; or imagine a computer file without word wrap, where each paragraph fills only one line, extending as far to the right as needed (Go on, read “Ulysses” that way, I dare ya).

The words might be the same in each case, but the shape of the text can change how easily it is comprehended.

And, perhaps, the actual comprehension itself.

Earlier this year, a spate of articles came out worrying about the impact of e-readers on our ability to recall what we read, especially with “textbooks”: being released in digital formats. Recent science has suggested that our spatial awareness of information within a book — such as whether the page is near the front or the end, how the paragraphs are arranged on the page or where on the page an important word or phrase is used — helps us to remember what we read later; this spatial information acts like a “collection of landmarks “: our memory. E-books, especially those that display text in a long unbroken column, lack those landmarks and may make recollection more difficult.

This problem is not just restricted to Kindles and Nooks, but is inherent in digital media in the wake of the Internet. When the ability to display information digitally started knocking on our minds, we, as a society, became fascinated by the idea of painting on a virtual — and virtually infinite — canvas. We can continue scrolling in any direction, seeing more and more.

But in order to make sense of all this information within our minds, we need limits on this canvas. We need shape.

Compare the front page of The New York Times in print with the front page of The Huffington Post (or even The New York Times website to a lesser degree). In print, there is a headline here, a picture there, a few articles in their own areas. Each item has its place within the rectangle of the page, which is small enough that we can take it all in at a glance. Once past the headline and featured blog post of The Huffington Post, however, the layout devolves into a monotonous list of headlines, snippits and pictures stretching far down the page. Trying to make sense of it all at once would be akin to trying to enjoy reading just the chapter titles from a Mark Twain novel: By the fifth one, you start mentally transforming each line into “In which something interesting occurred.”

That digital information presentation lags behind analog methods is in no way surprising. We have been improving the art of the book for nearly two millennia: We have only been improving the art of the Web page for around two decades. There is a lot left unexplored. How, for one example, can we better incorporate depth into digital media?

It is possible that e-readers and the Internet will eventually incorporate spatial landmarks to an even greater extent than modern books can; it is also possible that future generations, raised in an environment full of digital media, will develop their own spatial landmarks in a way we, who grew up without such things, cannot. (For my money, I would wager that the difference between digital and analog presentations will become small, but that there will still remain pros and cons to each.)

We, the first generation to step out onto that grand virtual canvas, are making mistakes. We are still learning that “screen size matters”: when we want to better remember what we read.

For all we know, the future of prose might look cow-shaped after all.

_Joseph is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached at [email protected]_