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Getting Smarter Through Writing by Hand



In this digital age where typing rules the written word, there’s something refreshing, sublime even, about picking up a nice pen or pencil and putting it to paper to record new ideas and meaningful notes.

 The simplicity of it removes at least a little bit of the background noise, the distraction, and the information overload that’s continually getting in the way of just getting a damn coherent thought together.

It feels like your brain can work better.

And lest you think this merely the random industrial design firm that happens to make the world’s best mechanical pencil, know this: it’s science.

For instance, in their paper The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer shared their findings that taking notes on a laptop can lead to lower comprehension and retention than doing so by hand:

 “Prior studies have primarily focused on [...] multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.”

Over three different studies, they found that, “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.”

Other research has suggested that writing by hand improves memory, learning of language and complex ideas, and even creative problem solving and innovation.

One such study found a distinct difference in neural activation when comparing children typing letters, tracing them, or writing them freehand. The brain’s “reading circuit” only came online after the freehand writing, showing that writing by hand helps with reading and comprehension.

And although the study focused on children, the implications are there for adults as well, in maintaining healthy brain functioning over the course of a lifetime. With ADHD and Alzheimer's so rampant these days, you might want to take heed.

One possible reason for these brain strengthening benefits is suggested by European researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay, who focus on the “haptics” of writing, or motor-sensory mechanics. They note that in typing, the input and output are in two different places, whereas in handwriting, the output is at the tip of the pencil.

“So what?” you might ask. Well, these guys think it matters:

 [Quoting Allen et al. (2004)] “‘If new media are to support the development and use of our uniquely human capabilities, we must acknowledge that the most widely distributed human asset is the ability to learn in everyday situations through a tight coupling of action and perception.’ (p. 229) In light of this perspective, the decoupling of motor input and haptic and visual output enforced by the computer keyboard as a writing device, then, is seriously ill-advised.”

If you’re having trouble understanding what all this means, perhaps you would benefit from some handwriting practice. Just sayin’.

And whatever the research says, the proof is in the pudding, so why not try it for yourself? Next time you’ve got notes to take, something important to write, or a complex problem to solve, grab a pencil and a clean sheet of paper and see how it feels, and what comes out.