Annie Murphy Paul
I have constrained my review of this book to one long excerpt due to the implications it has for vision, attention, learning, problem-solving, and memory.
An oversized computer screen has been developed to which users can bring some of the same navigational capacities they would apply to a real-world landscape. Picture a bank of computer screens three and a half feet wide and nine feet long. Robert Ball, an associate professor of computer science at Weber State University in Utah, has run numerous studies comparing people’s performance when interacting with a display like this to their performance when consulting a conventionally proportioned screen.
The improvements generated by the use of the super-sized display are striking. Ball and his collaborators have reported that larger high-resolution displays increased by more than tenfold the average speed at which basic visualization tasks are completed. On more challenging tasks, such as pattern finding, study participants improved their performance to 200 to 300 percent when using large displays. Working with the smaller screen, users resorted to less efficient and more simplistic strategies, producing fewer and more limited solutions to the problems posed by experimenters. When using a large display, they engaged in higher-order thinking, arrived at a greater number of discoveries and achieved broader, more integrative insights. Such gains are not a matter of individual preferences. Ball emphasizes; everyone who engages with the larger display finds that their thinking is enhanced.
Why would this be? Large high-resolution displays allow users to deploy their “physical embodied resources”, says Ball, adding, “With small displays, much of the body’s built-in functionality is wasted.” These corporeal resources are many and rich. They include peripheral vision, or the ability to see objects and movements outside the areas of the eye’s direct focus. Research by Ball and others shows that the capacity to access information through our peripheral vision enables us to gather more knowledge and insight at one time, providing us with a richer sense of context. The power to see “out of the corners of our eyes” also allows us to be more efficient at finding the information we need, and helps us to keep more of that information in mind as we think about the challenge before us. Smaller displays, meanwhile, encourage a narrower visual focus, and consequently more limited thinking. As Ball puts it, the availability of more screen pixels permits us to use more of our “brain pixels” to understand and solve problems.
Our built-in “embodied resources” also include our spatial memory: our robust capacity, exploited by the method of loci, to remember where things are. This ability is often “wasted”, as Ball would have it, by conventional computer technology: on small displays, information is contained within windows that are, of necessity, stacked on top of one another or moved around on the screen, interfering with our ability to relate to that information in terms of where it is located. By contrast, large displays, or multiple displays, offer enough space to lay out all the data in an arrangement that persists over time, allowing us to leverage our spatial memory as we navigate through that information.
Researchers from the University of Virginia and from Carnegie Mellon University reported that study participants were able to recall 56 percent more information when it was presented to them on multiple monitors rather than on a single screen. The multiple monitor setup induced the participants to orient their own bodies toward the information they sought – rotating their torsos, turning their heads – thereby generating memory-enhancing mental tags as to the information’s spatial location. Significantly, the researchers noted, these cues were generated “without active effort”. Automatically noting place information is simply something we humans do, enriching our memories without depleting precious mental resources.
Our embodied resources engaged by large displays include proprioception, or our sense of how and where the body is moving at a given moment, and our experience of optical flow, or the continuous stream of information our eyes receive as we move about in real-life environments. Both these busy sources of input fall silent when we sit motionless before our small screens, depriving us of rich dimensions of data that could otherwise be bolstering our recall and deepening our insight.
Indeed, the use of a compact display actively drains our mental capacity. The screen’s small size means that the map we construct of our conceptual terrain has to be held inside our head rather than fully laid out on the screen itself. We must devote some portion of our limited cognitive bandwidth to maintaining that map in mind; what’s more, the mental version of our map may not stay true to the data, becoming inaccurate or distorted over time. Finally, a small screen requires us to engage in virtual navigation through information-scrolling, zooming, clicking-rather than the more intuitive physical navigation our bodies carry out so effortlessly. Robert Ball reports that as display size increases, virtual navigation activity decreases-and so does the time required to carry out a task. Large displays, he has found, require as much as 90 percent less “window management” than small monitors.
The book also mentions other options, where appropriate, such as large white boards or cork boards. During this past year, many children have been going to school on Chromebooks. At least some of our patients were able to hook them up to their televisions, which helped, but this book also confirms that our best learning still takes place person-to-person.