Senses and Memories
Did you know that our sense of smell is, of all the senses, our strongest memory trigger? When we smell something, it passes through our olfactory bulb, which is connected to our amygdala (fight, flight, freeze response) and hippocampus (memory). Our senses of sight, sound, and touch don’t run through those areas of our brain!
Interestingly, the sense of smell is the one sense we can’t capture in digital reading (though google tried to claim otherwise on April Fools Day in 2013). Smell-memory isn’t an affordance of physical reading, either (except in some scratch ‘n sniff books!). So how do we remember what we read?
In the case of physical books, we have the advantage of haptics, or “nonverbal communication involving touch” (Siker, 2017, 62). This is what makes it easier for us to remember what we read in a physical book than in a digital one. We can actually see in our memories where certain words were on a page because of the physicality of it (vs. text on a screen, which is always being scrolled around). I can still see pages of my high school history textbook and the violin concertos I memorized in college.
We lose this sense of touch in digital reading. But do we gain anything? Does digital reading afford us anything that a physical book cannot? Can digital reading help us remember in ways a physical book cannot?
I’m not a neuropsychologist, so I cannot speak to the ways our various senses (besides smell) aid our memories. What I do know is that in this blog post alone, you’ve been able to see the text and hear me read it. You haven’t really been able to touch it in the way you can with a physical book, but you’ve been given access to other worlds - Psychology Today and Youtube - through a single click of a hyperlink. This digital blog post has afforded you more ways to experience the text than a physical book could.
So what do you think? Is digital reading a loss of reading comprehension that once was? Is it a gain of much more? Is it a fair trade, one for the other? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Siker, Jeffrey S.. Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World. Fortress Press, 2017.