On a real track, [a particular place cell] would fire when [the rat] had taken two steps away from the start [of the track], and then again when the animal reached the same spot on its return trip. But in virtual reality, something odd happened. Rather than firing a second time when the rat reached the same place on its return trip, [the cell] fired when the rat was two steps away from the opposite end of the track … That’s like the same place cell in your brain firing when you’ve taken two steps away from your door and then when you’ve taken two steps away from your car. Instead of encoding a position in absolute space, the place cell seems to be keeping track of the rat’s relative distance along the (virtual) track. [Mehta] says, “This never happens in the real world.”
The takeaway (says Nicholas Carr):
…the difference may stem from the lack of “proximal cues”—environmental smells, sounds, and textures that provide clues to location—in the digital world.
So rats may not be able to navigate virtual worlds as well as their physical counterparts because even though it’s a three-dimensional environment they’re navigating, there’s still a lot of important information missing.
Which brings me to ebooks and reading on screens in general. My particular experience varies, but my gut tells me I don’t comprehend or retain information I read online/my phone as well as I do when I read it on paper. There’s something about holding a paper book that tells my brain to slow down and pay attention. (And an equally as powerful part that constantly wants to reach for my phone…)
I do everything on my phone—set alarms, send text messages, read the news, listen to music—I think my brain picks up on that and designates it as a medium that doesn’t require that much concentration.
It appears as though my hunch may be right. Quoting from Andrew Sullivan’s quoting:
[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls, and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.
In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.
See also: my ongoing coverage of ebooks.