January 16, 2013

Study: Facebook is more memorable than books


Researchers at the University of Warwick and the University of California, San Diego have found that the brain remembers posts on Facebook and other social media significantly better than sentences picked at random from books.

Two groups of people were shown either a handful of status updates or some sentences roughly the length of a status, chosen at random from books in Amazon’s ‘New Releases’ section. Both nonfiction and fiction books were used, but any sentences containing quotations were rejected. Participants in the Facebook group showed 50% more recall than those in the book group — which is, according to the study’s authors, ‘a magnitude comparable to the difference in memory strength between amnesics and healthy controls’.

So what does this mean? According to one of the authors of the report:

Facebook is updated roughly 30 million times an hour so it’s easy to dismiss it as full of mundane, trivial bits of information that we will instantly forget as soon as we read them.

But our study turns that view on its head, and by doing so gives us a really useful glimpse into the kinds of information we’re hardwired to remember.

Writing that is easy and quick to generate is also easy to remember – the more casual and unedited, the more ‘mind-ready’ it is.

Knowing this could help in the design of better educational tools as well as offering useful insights for communications or advertising.

Of course we’re not suggesting textbooks written entirely in tweets, nor should editors be rendered useless, – but textbook writers or lecturers using PowerPoint could certainly benefit from using more natural speech to get information across.

Better educational tools, maybe, but better books? Definitely not. After all, the test only accounts for one type of memory — verbatim recall — and if that were all we were looking for in our books, we’d all have stopped at nursery rhymes.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.