I tend to be annoyed by evolutionary just-so stories (“Let’s see, how can whatever I’m doing at the moment be explained by my hunter-gatherer ancestors?”) but this one I like, perhaps because it addresses an ongoing problem for me:
Something's been bothering me ever since I started reading books, especially non-fiction, on my Kindle:
I can't remember where anything is. Physical books are full of spatial reference points; an especially beloved book is a physical topography in which we develop a vague sense of which chapters contain relevant information; even where, on a page, a particularly striking sentence or diagram lies.
Ebooks have none of these referents. They're searchable (or at least, some are) which mitigates this issue somewhat. But I'm unlikely to remember that a fact was at "41% through a book" for one simple reason: my hands never got a chance to find out what 41% through a particular ebook feels like.
This isn't to say that physical books are perfect — perhaps if we read off of giant scrolls laid out across a gymnasium floor, I'd have an even better memory of where I saw a fact: "upper left quadrant, approximately the fourth row..." or something like that. And perhaps some day a virtual interface for reading will give me those kinds of spatial referents.
But in the meantime, millions of years of evolution are going to waste. It's no secret that mnemonists — the mental athletes of the world of competitive memorization — use tricks like placing facts and sequential information on the walls of mansions they imagine walking through. And why? Because our brains are exquisitely well-tuned to remember where things are. Exactly what you'd expect from a species with a migratory, hunter-gatherer past; a species that re-applied those abilities to the navigation of cities long after it settled into an agricultural pattern.
Whether the evolutionary explanation for knowing how to find things in books is a good one or not, the relative lack of spatial cues in e-reading is a genuine lack. My internet friend Tim Carmody has been talking on Twitter lately about three-dimensionality, and here’s a great instance of how and why three-dimensionality works for us.