Bring Back Handwriting: It’s Good for Your Brain

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From Medium:

Not so long ago, putting pen to paper was a fundamental feature of daily life. Journaling and diary-keeping were commonplace, and people exchanged handwritten letters with friends, loved ones, and business associates.
While longhand communication is more time-consuming and onerous, there’s evidence that people may in some cases lose out when they abandon handwriting for keyboard-generated text.

Psychologists have long understood that personal, emotion-focused writing can help people recognize and come to terms with their feelings. Since the 1980s, studies have found that “the writing cure,” which normally involves writing about one’s feelings every day for 15 to 30 minutes, can lead to measurable physical and mental health benefits. These benefits include everything from lower stress and fewer depression symptoms to improved immune function. And there’s evidence that handwriting may better facilitate this form of therapy than typing.

. . . .

“When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion,” says Virginia Berninger, a professor emerita of education at the University of Washington. Hitting a fully formed letter on a keyboard is a very different sort of task — one that doesn’t involve these same brain pathways. “It’s possible that there’s not the same connection to the emotional part of the brain” when people type, as opposed to writing in longhand, Berninger says.

. . . .

A 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that brain regions associated with learning are more active when people completed a task by hand, as opposed to on a keyboard. The authors of that study say writing by hand may promote “deep encoding” of new information in ways that keyboard writing does not. And other researchers have argued that writing by hand promotes learning and cognitive development in ways keyboard writing can’t match.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG’s mother had him take a summer typing class when he was about eleven years old. (Yes, my child, this was at a time when dragons were still found on the earth and a keyboard was always permanently fixed to a typewriter.)

Later, in high school, he took another typing class (and massively aced it because of his original typing class). At the annual high school awards program, he received an award for being the fastest and most accurate typist in the school. (It was a very small school, but still.)

During his early years of college, PG charged an exorbitant price per page for typing papers for other students. His particular target market was procrastinators who hadn’t finished their papers until the evening of the day before they were due. PG would type papers at all hours of the night, for a price. (Yes, keyboards were still attached to typewriters.)

PG remembers the first time he saw a word processor, in a law office where he worked part-time during law school. It was used by the secretary for an estate planning attorney. PG learned two things – 1. Word processors could turn out perfectly-typed documents faster than anybody could type. 2. 99% of the contents of an estate plan created for Client A were the same as an estate plan for Client B, so a skilled secretary could modify 1% of the standard estate plan template in about ten minutes, then feed sheets of paper into the typewriter without worrying about mistakes. (The earliest word processors were essentially typewriters with some minimal memory hooked up inside. Sometimes, there was a dial next to the keyboard that allowed the secretary to select one of ten numbered documents that were stored in the word processor.

Not long thereafter, PG was working General Counsel for a very small tech company that also retained a large Los Angeles law firm for some matters. The law firm had a glassed-in portion of its office where its word processors and their operators sat. PG Again, these were dedicated machines that only did word processing, but they used separate monitors and keyboards. They still used impact printers, so it was very noisy in the room when multiple documents were being printed.

These dedicated word processors were quite expensive (PG remembers something like $40,000 each), so the law firm was anxious to have them in use as much as possible. The word processing room was staffed 24/7, so lawyers working late or very late could have documents created or updated at any time. PG had a couple of late-night projects and became familiar with the talents of the word processing workers. They were very fast and very accurate.

When PG opened his own law office, he sprang for a dedicated word processor for his desk and his secretary (Yes, my child, that was a common and perfectly respectable job title) used an IBM Selectric. A year or so later, PG bought a personal computer from the local Radio Shack store, moved the dedicated word processor to his secretary’s desk, and hasn’t looked back since.

That is a very long preface to a very short conclusion. PG believes that whatever areas of his brain that would otherwise be devoted to handwriting have been hijacked by keyboarding. He isn’t aware of any intermediary steps happening in his brain between his thinking of something and the words describing that something showing up on his computer screen. He doesn’t believe that handwriting holds a special place in his brain any more. Your experience may vary, but PG has typed so many more words than he has handwritten during his life, he thinks his handwriting brain has either gone completely dormant or been occupied by his typing brain.

19 thoughts on “Bring Back Handwriting: It’s Good for Your Brain”

  1. The article is also ignorant about three nontrivial problems with preferring handwriting:

    (1) The lefty who was taught to write with his/her right hand, and is therefore “cross-braining” all of the purportedly good brain-training connections. (I suppose the converse exists, too.)

    (2) Dylsectics. If only because correcting to “dyslectics” is both a lot easier and a lot more apparent on any keyboard/keyboarded output.

    (3) Multilingual people, especially those learning a new language and those whose other language(s) is/are not written using a standard roman alphabet. Yes, there’s certainly “keyboard layout” confusion (even for closely related languages like English and Spanish, or English and French), but the brain-training connections issues are even more important than either of the two above. I have observed more than one English-speaker suddenly and radically increase competency (including competency in written English!) shortly after beginning to use a “soft” keyboard for right-to-left languages.

    The OP is a corollary of the old canard that “practice makes perfect.” Ask any teacher/coach of a specific, technique-based physical activity if it’s true! Practice makes habitual… including, and perhaps especially, bad habits.

  2. It’s another click-baity prescriptive “we should” article, a contributor to the general public’s rejection of expert opinion in general.

  3. Well, my experience is somewhat similar to PG’s. I learned to type when I was about ten, although I am somewhat clumsier than PG– I’ve never been and never expect to be a crack typist, but my fingers have been on keyboards most of my life, except for a decade when I went rogue and became a carpenter.

    Nevertheless, I find writing stuff out in longhand to be a different experience from typing. I would not call it superior, just different. It’s much slower and I think differently when I write on paper. I’m fussy about paper and I’ve collected fountain pens as long as I have typed. I don’t write longhand letters– my correspondents would not like to have to decipher my sprawling hand. But even when I was coding, when I was stumped, I pulled out pen and paper to work through the problem. I still do it today when I have to be clear and creative with myself. But I never show my scribbling to anyone. It’s just my way of thinking things out.

    Which shows once again that mileage varies and to each his own.

  4. When I’m typing and am stuck for a word, I pick up a pencil and write the sentence or phrase by hand. The word I need almost always appears.

    • That is a good trick. I call my best friend when I get stuck on a word. Talking it out often makes it appear in my brain. But she’s not available 24/7 and I will now try that, as my brain could definitely use a defrag and they haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

  5. Personally, I get more intensely written scenes when I do it by hand–though I seldom do. And there’s also a difference between typing and dictating stories for me.

    Each level is slightly more removed. Less “brain to hand” connection. Of course, dictating is faster than typing, and typing is faster than handwriting a manuscript.

    • “typing is faster than handwriting a manuscript”

      Especially when you consider the handwritten ms then must be typed to be of practical value.

  6. To me, handwriting is holographic, in the original sense.

    When I handwrite notes, and read them back, the words are a nemonic and I remember everything that I saw that is yet to be on the page. In other words, my handwritten notes contain worlds.

    Notice that your comments and mine are contained in the definition. HA!

    Holographic instrument
    The expansion of the concept of holographic or handwritten documents must include a discussion of the effectiveness of a document in accomplishing its intended purpose. Print media came into being as a solution to the problem of the sluggish and ponderous task of transcribing written materials by hand. Printing enabled rapid construction, compilation and production of written material and provided a means for the revolutionary concept of dissemination of copies of written material.

    The intrinsic value of employing the handwritten word in creating a document is that the authorship of handwritten documents is able to be authenticated by handwriting comparison with samples of the author’s other writings or by recognition by witnesses familiar with the handwriting style and characteristics of the author. This valuable quality of proof of authorship maintains to this day the primacy of the hand-written document where it was required, by law or by necessity, to have authenticity and verifiable provenance or origin of the document.

  7. Southpaw here that never learned to ‘type’, nor is my spelling anything to write home about!

    Last time I tried handwriting notes (jury duty in 2001) I strongly missed the insert and spellchecking options on my desktop PC (was going through an old box and found those notes, can’t read them to save my life!)

    So no, chicken scratching will neither improve nor speed up my writing.

    MYMV and each to what works best for them. 😉

  8. “Practice makes perfect” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
    And Malcom Gladwell is a snake oil salesman with a dull axe.

    “A study of violinists found that merely good players practised as much as, if not more than, better players, leaving other factors such as quality of tuition, learning skills and perhaps natural talent to account for the difference.

    The work is the latest blow to the 10,000-hour rule, the idea promoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, which has been taken to mean that enough practice will make an expert of anyone. In the book, Gladwell states that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”.

    “The idea has become really entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification,” said Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people.”

    No amount of practice would ever make my handwriting readable. Nor my memory better. It was very good (annoyingly so) before I started to muddle through Handwriting and never got better by the time I gave up.

    Block printing and keyboards for me.

    • 1) My “Microsoft melted” keyboard at home, with a full size monitor (and the second one for other documents in the WIP).

      2) Out of the house, block printing on whatever is available, if I have a writing implement.

      3) Pecking away on the Fire, if I happen to have it.

      4) Picking and snarling at autocorrupt on the smart phone.

      5) If all else fails, carving it into the arms with the house key (okay, haven’t gotten that far yet, but close…)

  9. I wrote my first stories out longhand in ninth grade and high school. But I needed a typewriter for college, and then the IBM PC came into my life in the early eighties. And here is the difference between a typewriter and a PC for me: On a typewriter, when I wrote, though I was a fast typist, I could not type as fast as my brain thought up the words in a story. I would often get most of what I was thinking on paper, but the sentences were different, and sometimes felt wrong.

    The longer I used a PC, and the better keyboards became, the faster I could type. I now type at the speed of thought. Every word that comes into my brain goes into my writing. I don’t lose those phrases that I thought expressed the scene perfectly. I don’t lose a single word. And I love it.

    When I have to write by hand, it feels like I’m writing in molasses. I can’t even imagine how much of the story I’d lose trying to write longhand.

    God bless modern technology. It makes my writing life so much better.

  10. The comments here seem to sort into two types: Those who prefer typing because it is fast and those who favor handwriting because it is slow. Don’t know what to make of that…

  11. As someone who also learned to type early on a manual typewriter during the last ice age, I tend to use keyboards for almost everything and have done so for most of my life.

    Of course, unlike recent generations, I was trained to do everything longhand at a young age so possibly the pathways were well established by the time I discovered the joys of keyboarding.

    In fact, after learning Russian, my cursive ends up transforming into Cyrillic without conscious thought creating a problem which keeps me from writing by hand. ( I have to print when I write longhand. ) Now, combine that with being a ‘lefty’ and it’s a recipe for horrible handwriting that no one, including me, wants to read.

    I don’t think it’s so much the writing that helps with learning and creativity. I believe I learn just as deeply and swiftly when taking notes by hand or the computer – and my computer notes are always legible.

    I still scribble quick notes longhand but anything of length has to be on a keyboard – my pen just can’t keep up with my mind.

  12. My wrist hurts just thinking about doing all the writing I do by least with typing my RSI is evenly spread across both hands.

  13. To add to my comment above, and mention in context with many of the other posts.

    You have people like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, John Irving, who often handwrite to make the writing more physical. Irving doesn’t feel that he is writing unless he handwrites, and covers his typed manuscripts with handwritten changes.

    John Irving

    Then there is John Banville who also writes as Benjamin Black.

    John Banville

    As John Banville he writes sentences, taking years to finish a novel. As Benjamin Black he writes story and blasts them out in a few months.

    John Banville a.k.a. Benjamin Black Interview

    I type and handwrite at the same speed, 16 words a minute.

    In the Long Ago, and the Far Away, I would handwrite pages, then make the mistake of transcribing them to the computer. It would take me 15 minutes per 250 word page to handwrite, then 15 minutes per page to transcribe, so that rapidly stopped me from wasting valuable writing time transcribing.

    With the advent of scanners I simply scan the handwritten page so that I can have it as a pdf that I can easily access rather than search through 3-ring binders.

    The scanned page still gives me the nemonic, with worlds contained on the page. The transcribed page was missing all of the holographic effect and I would lose key information. They were just typed words on the page. I needed the actual shape of the handwritten words to see what was not yet on the page.

    At 16 words a minute, I don’t have trouble with RSI, either typing or handwriting. Yes, my mind goes faster than the 16 words a minute, but I find that a feature not a flaw. I do stream of consciousness(free write) by hand, and cycle when I type. Think of how Bob Ross paints, adding here and there, when I talk about cycling.

    Bob Ross

    With handwriting, I grew up using the standard way of holding the pen. That was a major problem with time. The pain of holding the pen made me hold it tighter to have control. I was rapidly reaching a point where I could not write by hand. Then I saw a video of Taylor Swift writing a song at school, and the way she held her pen was interesting.

    Taylor Swift Aged 16 (interview from 2006)

    Here is a video showing different ways to hold the pen.

    12 Ways to Hold a Pen!

    The “Cool Way” is the best way to hold the pen. It took minutes for my hand to get used to it. There is no more pain, no matter how much I write.

    Taylor Swift saved me! HA!

  14. “It’s possible that there’s not the same connection to the emotional part of the brain” when people type, as opposed to writing in longhand, Berninger says.

    Well, happily for typists and longhand-writers everywhere, we have the technology to test this theory rigorously, instead of merely speculating about it. Sadly, Berninger is a Professor Emeritus of Education, which in my experience of Education Professors thus far, means she would far, far rather speculate than substantiate.

    • Well, now: a pronouncement from on high is worth more than a dozen MRI, MRE, or PET experiments in brain-mapping.

      Cheaper, too.
      And about as respected as its costs.

      There *have* been experiments mapping brain activity during writing and one thing they clearly found: repetitive writing practice is no darn good. So there is *some* emotion involved. 🙂

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