Scientifically Speaking | If it matters, write it down by hand: The surprising scientific benefits of handwriting - Hindustan Times
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Scientifically Speaking | If it matters, write it down by hand: The surprising scientific benefits of handwriting

ByAnirban Mahapatra
May 27, 2024 08:00 AM IST

While our world is increasingly digital, and the efficiency of typing is undeniable, the cognitive benefits of handwriting can’t be overlooked.

In an age dominated by keyboards and touchscreens, handwriting is becoming a lost art. Schools now emphasise typing over handwriting, and workplaces rely on automatic transcription and AI-generated notes.

Handwriting involves complex coordination between our motor and visual systems, strengthening neural pathways associated with memory and learning.(Pixabay) PREMIUM
Handwriting involves complex coordination between our motor and visual systems, strengthening neural pathways associated with memory and learning.(Pixabay)

I remain a firm advocate for writing by hand and I keep notebooks. I’m not pining for a bygone era. Writing by hand compels me to form thoughts and sentences without seamless editing. Every morning, I start my day by writing down my goals in a physical notebook.

Handwriting helps me think clearly and connect ideas visually with circles, flowcharts, and mind maps. I've outlined the structure of two books and over one hundred drafts of this column in notebooks. Even in important work meetings, I prefer to write things down by hand.

Handwriting involves complex coordination between our motor and visual systems, strengthening neural pathways associated with memory and learning. You see, gripping a pen to write is a complex task. Your brain constantly monitors the pressure each finger exerts on the pen. Then, your motor system adjusts that pressure delicately to form each letter of the words in your head on the page.

Incidentally, science supports handwriting over typing. Recent research highlights cognitive benefits linked to the tactile, deliberate process of handwriting. Writing by hand, whether with pen on paper or stylus on a screen, engages our brains in ways typing doesn't. The tactile feedback from the pen, the resistance of the page, and the sensory experience of forming each letter contribute to deeper engagement.

For children, the benefits of writing by hand are especially pronounced. Studies show that kids who learn to write by hand recognise and understand letters better, laying the groundwork for literacy and learning.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology recently found that students who took handwritten notes had higher levels of brain activity across the regions responsible for movement, vision, sensory processing, and memory. In contrast, typing led to minimal activity in these areas. Researchers Audrey van der Meer and Ruud van der Weel suggest handwriting forces students to process information more deeply. When you’re writing by hand, you can’t copy everything down verbatim, so you have to think as you write, unlike typing, where the temptation to transcribe lectures word-for-word is high.

In addition, handwriting reinforces memory and learning pathways. The action of forming letters creates a feedback loop with our visual and sensory systems, embedding information more deeply in our brains. This process is like drawing or building something. In all these cases, the process helps strengthen the concept and makes it stick in our memory.

Other studies support this idea. A 2021 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience explored learning effectiveness between handwriting, typing, and using a digital pen. It found that handwriting, whether with a traditional or digital pen, resulted in better memory retention and learning as compared to typing. This was evident in the "N400" brainwave, an indicator of semantic processing and learning. Participants familiar with digital pens showed particularly strong learning effects, highlighting the tool's effectiveness once accustomed.

The study also found that handwriting induced a more positive mood as compared to typing. Participants felt more engaged and active when writing by hand, enhancing the learning process. Positive moods help us think better, supporting the idea that handwriting is beneficial.

For adults, one of the main benefits of writing by hand is that it makes us slow down. During a lecture or meeting, typing lets us transcribe rapidly, but we don’t have to process the information before getting it down. Today, with advanced digital transcription tools, there’s no need to copy down everything that’s said. Lectures and meetings are recorded and AI can generate accurate summaries, but there's no substitute for writing by hand.

Handwriting requires us to digest the matter first, which aids in deeper understanding and retention. Capturing everything isn’t the point, it’s learning how to use our judgment to distil what’s important.

While our world is increasingly digital, and the efficiency of typing is undeniable, the cognitive benefits of handwriting can’t be overlooked. As schools and workplaces become more dependent on digital tools, we should incorporate handwriting into our daily routines through journaling, note-taking, or doodling to enhance learning, memory, and mood.

Sometimes, the old ways of doing things are just better.

Anirban Mahapatra is a scientist and author, most recently of the popular science book, When The Drugs Don’t Work: The Hidden Pandemic That Could End Medicine. The views expressed are personal.

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