The Importance of Writing By Hand

02/10/2016

Handwriting matters — even if you never read it. Writing things down by hand helps us remember and use the information — even if we never read our notes.

by Kate Gladstone

Handwriting matters — even if you never read it. Writing things down by hand helps us remember and use the information — even if we never read our notes.

A study in Psychological Science[1] found that college students taking notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions about the material than students taking notes on paper. The research team leader explains why: “Students who took notes on the laptop were basically transcribing the lecture. Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently.”[2]

Similar results appeared with schoolchildren. Kindergarteners learning the alphabet through print-writing exercises typically learn it faster and more thoroughly (and became better readers) than those learning the alphabet through keyboard work.[3] Older children, assigned to compose essays by hand, typically express more ideas (and produce more words more quickly, despite the greater mechanical ease and speed of keyboarding) than those assigned to do their thinking at a keyboard.[4]

In both studies, the differences showed up on brain scans. When children wrote by hand, more of the brain’s centers for language, thinking, and “working memory” (ongoing storage and management of information) were active and cooperating than when the children typed.

Handwriting’s memory benefits can be observed daily. As smartphones replace address books, people in their thirties and forties are finding they cannot recall close friends' phone numbers — yet they remember the phone numbers these friends had fifteen or twenty years ago, back when such things were written down by hand. Worse, people in their teens and twenties often cannot remember the phone numbers of friends whom they call several times daily. They find it hard to believe that, not long ago (when getting a phone number required writing it down), it would have been unimaginable to forget a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s number.

Why does handwriting make a difference? Researchers credit “motor memory.” When we sequenced physical activity uses nerves and muscles in complexly patterned ways, our brain receives abundant sensory and motor feedback. The more complex feedback an activity involves, the more easily and accurately the brain forms and retains the associated memories. The up-and-down finger-taps of keyboarding provide far less feedback (thus, far less stimulus to memory) than the complex sensorimotor patterns involved in handwriting.[5] 

These memory benefits would not have surprised handwriters of old. In the Middle Ages, when both handwriting skills and memory skills were crucial for civilization to continue, the few who were lucky enough to get educated were taught to use visual features of handwriting (layout, ink color, and individual quirks of letter formation) to help them remember written material. A typical example is documented by a modern-day researcher into historical memory techniques[6]:

“In the early twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor, instructing some young students on how to remember, ... says: ‘...when we read books, we strive to impress on our memory...the color, shape, position, and placement of the letters,...indeed, I consider nothing so useful for stimulating the memory as this.” Although mental images can obviously use typefont, handwriting’s inevitable slight variations in “the color, shape, position, and placement of the letters” assist in forming and retaining those distinctive mental images (at least, when the writing is readable. Writing unclear to the eye will likely be unclear in the mind’s eye.)

We cannot, and should not, return to bygone times — but remembering the lessons of the past is at least as important as remembering a phone number.

Kate Gladstone is Director of the World Handwriting Contest and CEO of Handwriting Repair/ Handwriting that Works, a handwriting instruction and remediation firm.

Do you have questions on handwriting? How did we get cursive? How can our handwriting be improved? What makes handwritten signatures important — and legal?

Send your questions to Kate Gladstone by email at info@twosidesna.org or by mail to 330 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 2000, Chicago, Illinois 6061.

Sources

[1] April 23, 2014 — http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/04/22/0956797614524581.abstract

[2] Interview with researcher Pam Mueller - http://www.fastcompany.com/3044907/work-smart/how-typing-is-destroying-your-memory

[3] https://www.hw21summit.com/research-harman-james

[4]http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/27740364?uid=3739560&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102014892263

[5] Better Learning through Handwriting, Science News — http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm

[6] Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture — http://www.amazon.com/The-Book-Memory-Cambridge-Literature/dp/0521716314