Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Ebooks and cognitive mapping

The following series of tweets by @seriouspony (Kathy Sierra) tie into a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, namely cognitive mapping.

“…digital text also disrupted a technique called cognitive mapping, in which readers used physical cues…” http://t.co/zjjRC4W2gA. #

I’m gonna error on the side of Carry Context Forward. Too many books assume reader has preternaturally awesome memory… #

Maybe eBooks (for non-fiction) aren’t broken… they just surfaced what was always broken about our approach to books. #opportunityToFix. #

I worry we’ll find a tech solution for eBook devices rather than fix the problem at its source (the design/implementation of content itself). #

Carrying context forward (in text book or learning video) can be good UI – “knowledge in the world vs. head” (Design of Everyday Things). #

The problem

To quote Wikipedia:

A cognitive map (also: mental map or mental model) is a type of mental representation which serves an individual to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment.

The spatial environment in this case is the book itself. It is a three-dimensional object that lends itself very well to this kind of mental model.

Like so many other readers, cognitive mapping is a major part of how I remember what I read and it’s a technique that’s utterly useless when you’re reading an ebook. I read a book and a part of how I remember what I remember is spatial mapping. I remember roughly how far into the book the passage was and where on the page. Combined with copious usage of small post-its this makes it very easy to remember passages and reacquire them when needed.

I know that for a lot of other people (my students, for example, back when I was a teacher) cognitive mapping helps them keep track of the book’s ideas and argument as they go forward. Without it a lot of them lose the thread they are following through the book and, as Kathy put it, ‘fail to carry context forward’.

The other key to the memory puzzle is to stop on a regular basis, close the book, and think about what you’ve just read. Go over the salient points in your head and if you have that nagging feeling that there’s something you’re missing, go back and look for it. This tactic fortunately works for ebooks.

It’s not that I have problems remembering things. I can remember most things I read without any effort (much to my sister’s annoyance who says that I have a ‘glue-brain’). What these techniques help me to do is to contextualise the information. The cognitive map preserves for me the overall context of the book (where a passage appeared, where it was in the extended argument, what line of thinking preceded and succeeded it, etc.). Closing the book and going over the book’s points places the book’s ideas in my own intellectual context; I remember them better because I have connected them with my own preexisting ideas.

I rely on these techniques so much that when it comes to reading books that contain ideas I want to remember, I have become hesitant to read them as ebooks. For example, I’ve been reading through John Gray’s books lately (False Dawn, Straw Dogs, and Black Mass so far, all excellent, although Straw Dogs was the best of the three) and I made sure to buy them in print. I made the mistake of buying and reading Taleb’s Antifragile on the Kindle and will probably end up buying the print version and reading it again so that I can retain more of it.

I’ve actually done this several times: bought an ebook, read it, then bought it again in print to read properly. (Bundling would be awesome for me. Read the book in print and still have access to full-text search.)

It takes a lot to make a longterm ebook fanatic, one who genuinely loves the format, to lean towards print but, when it comes to remembering stuff, ebooks are for me a bit crippled. A good search facility in an ebook reading app helps to reacquire a passage you already remember but not for carrying context forward or remembering the passage’s context.

The solution

Kathy’s perspective on this is trying to figure out how to make awesome books and in that context she is absolutely right. New books intended to provoke skills development in the reader should be written to remove the need for techniques such as cognitive mapping. They should absolutely carry the context forward through writing and design. We know so much more now about how memory is formed, how skills are developed, and how the mind works than we used to and we have an obligation to use this knowledge to make new books better. There is no downside to that.


(You knew there would be a however, right?)

We can’t rewrite old books. You can’t rewrite John Gray and add sections at the start of every chapter that carries context forward. You can’t add this stuff to Seneca or Schopenhauer. So, I have to respectfully disagree with Kathy on the need to find a tech solution. The point is that this isn’t an either-or choice. We both have the duty to make better books and content and we need to improve the experience for reading older books. Our duty to preserve existing thought is equal to our duty to make better books.

The problem is that I haven’t the faintest idea on how to address this in the ebook reading app. It’s a problem that requires a lot of research because our instincts on what helps memory formation are likely to lead the app developer astray.


To those of you who doubt cognitive mapping in the print book context:

Have you never read through a book, then held it in your hands, recalled a passage, and been able to guess roughly where it is in the book, down to whether it was on the right hand or left hand page? And you’ve been able to do this without remembering what exactly the passage looked like?

That’s cognitive mapping. It isn’t an abstract phenomenon or an artificial mnemonic technique but a side effect of our interaction with a three-dimensional object. It’s an aid. Your memory isn’t crippled or compromised without it, but can and does improve recall and help you keep track of things as you read. Especially if you practice it deliberately and add aids such as small post-its regularly as you read. Those post-its aren’t just markers but also landmarks, you’re able to remember where a passage was in relation to its nearest post-it.

Also note that your memories in this case aren’t entirely visual, as in you don’t necessarily remember what the passage looked like. This is one of the many reasons why progress bars in ereaders can’t serve the same purpose. Those progress bars aren’t visible all of the time (so chances are with any given passage that the bar wasn’t visible when you read it) and even if it was, you aren’t likely to remember it unless you are one of those rare persons with extremely strong visual memory.

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