Typing and using keyboards may be the faster option, but what is it doing for our brains?
Recent studies comparing typing and handwriting have found what I have long suspected, that using the slower option and writing by hand, actually helps to commit things to memory.
Articles in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times cite several studies which conclude that writing by hand could be beneficial to your brain in several ways.
The Wall Street Journal looks at the research of Virginia Berninger, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who found that writing by hand is beneficial because the fingers have to use different strokes to create the letters. She concluded that these movements activate regions of the brain involved in thinking, memory and language, which are the regions responsible for the temporary storage and management of information.
She also found that young children wrote faster, included more words and were able to express more ideas, when handwriting rather than typing essays.
In addition, Indiana University researchers found that children who practised handwriting had more active brains than those who just looked at the letters.
The article also had good news for adults attempting to learn a new language. Citing The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience which found that when attempting to master a new language, it is beneficial to write the foreign words by hand rather than type them on a keyboard, as this helps to commit them to memory.
The Wall Street Journal article also mentions research by Neuroscientist P. Murali Doraiswarmy of Duke University, which suggests that older people could benefit from writing by hand as their brains age, saying that “retraining people in handwriting skills could be a useful cognitive exercise”.
In the New York Times Maria Konnikova also covers the differences between printing and cursive writing.
She reports that a French psychologist, Stanislas Dehaene found that the act of handwriting activates “a unique neural circuit” that may make it easier for children to learn.
Konnikova also mentions a 2012 study led by Karin James, at Indiana University, which asked children who hadn’t previously learnt to read and write to reproduce a shape on a card, by either tracing it, drawing it freehand, or typing it on a computer. The study found that it was the actual process used to reproduce the shape that made a difference. The children that drew the shape freehand showed increased brain activity in three areas compared to those who typed or traced it.
Furthermore, Konnikova refers to recent studies by two psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles. They have found that the act of writing something by hand rather than typing it on a computer can help students to focus on what is important and learn better. This is because writing by hand helps the brain to digest thoughts and to summarise them which could aid memory and understanding.
According to The Wall Street Journal, in American schools traditional handwriting skills and cursive writing are only taught for just over one hour a week, and some parents feel that even this small amount is a waste of time.
Good typing and keyboarding skills are now an essential part of many people’s jobs and must-have skills for tech wizards and IT geeks. How times change. I remember times past, when typing was associated only with mundane secretarial jobs and low paid work.
Digital skills and the use of technology are now second nature to the very young and the benefits in many areas of life undeniable.
The older generation, whilst embracing many aspects of new technology, have, in a lot of cases also continued to write by hand. Many of my mother’s generation are avid handwritten letter writers and it will be interesting in years to come to discover whether a life-time of writing by hand has lasting effects on the brains of the older generation.
I know from my experience as a student that it was only when writing notes by hand that I was able to commit facts to memory and learn more effectively.
And I’ve always thought that the very act of hand writing a reminder note and sticking it on your fridge or laptop helps to commit the event to memory more effectively than just typing it into your phone.
The handwritten word is centuries old, and perhaps we are only now beginning to discover the wider psychological benefits of committing pen to paper.
With current research into the benefits of handwriting and a trend towards the personalised experience, technology firms such as Samsung are picking up on this return to basics and developing smartphones and apps that allow users to handwrite onto the screen and convert it to the typewritten word.
I don’t think that those who claim handwriting is dead or will disappear from our daily lives are right, but it is probably inevitable that it will evolve into forms that we can’t yet imagine.