Now that that old bloodhound Writing-by-Hand is banished to the doghouse out back, while the twin white poodles named Tapping and Typing are on our laps at the dinner table, should we care? Is there any evidence that taking pen in hand is somehow better for thinking or remembering? At Levenger we have a dog in this fight, since we sell lots of nice writing instruments and quality paper. So I’ll admit we have a bias to seek out such evidence and share it widely.
With that confession, let me also say that we’re attempting to take a balanced look at the evidence. My biggest fear is that we jettison writing by hand on paper prematurely, without considering its benefits. And one thing is sure—we’re all falling more deeply in love with our smartphones and tablets, me included.
So I’ve asked Mim Harrison, editor of Levenger Press, to do a deep dive into the literature and write up her findings. Here is her report:
Richard Mason’s novel The Gilded Curve: History of a Pleasure Seeker is not just a digital book; it’s a multimedia, interactive experience known as an eLumination. Tap onto an illustration of a street or building and it comes to life in video. Tap the gramophone icon (gramophone!) and it’s an audiobook, with one of the cast of Downton Abbey reading to you. Historical context of the story, set in Amsterdam in 1907, is just another tap away.
What you’re really tapping into is your imagination, in ways that an electronic platform can uniquely offer.
There’s one other button to tap, and that’s the one where this 36-year-old author tells you why he wrote his novel—by hand.
“I wanted to introduce something physical to the process,” he says in the video clip. Hand-writing, he says, “encourages concision and briskness and quickness.”
Or, as the novelist Mark Helprin says, “a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel.”
A number of neuroscientists would agree.
It is all in your head
“Handedness is uniquely human,” writes the neurologist Frank R. Wilson in his book titled, appropriately, The Hand. We humans are the only one of the evolutionary bunch to favor one hand over the other.
It’s one of those instances where saying “it’s all in your head” has more than a modicum of truth. “Any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function…is grossly misleading,” Dr. Wilson asserts.
Our brains are wired in ways not only intricate but specific. We use one set of circuits to add, for example, and a different set to subtract.
Much of this wiring begins early. At the Library of Congress’s international summit on books and literacy, Karen Keninger, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, stressed the importance for the blind of learning Braille when they’re young.
“It’s difficult to learn Braille as an adult because of the wiring you have to do between your hands and your brain,” said Karen (who is blind).
Occupational therapist Marion Wilm maintains on her Child and Family Development blog that children who don’t know how to hand-write are compromising the development of their fine-motor skills. These skills provide the kind of dexterity that surgeons and scientists need.
As it is with surgeons and scientists (and plumbers and mechanics), so it is with humans who write: tools matter. Picking up a pen can put in motion a different set of circuits from tapping on a keyboard.
Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay, two European researchers, describe some of these different “neural pathways” in their 2010 study, “Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing.” (Think tactile for haptics; from the Greek for to grasp.)
They cite experiments that showed how Japanese readers would use different sets of circuitry in their brains when they read two different kinds of Japanese writing, kana (used for foreign words, proper names, and grammatical elements) and kanji (which is based on older, Chinese characters).
These different neural pathways were also evident in another study the researchers cite, where some subjects hand-wrote characters and others typed them. Magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI (the f is for functional; it measures changes in blood flow in the brain) revealed that different parts of the brain kicked in, depending on whether someone was hand-writing or typing.
How, then, does this different circuitry affect how we think and remember and execute?
A 2010 study at Indiana University showed, again through an fMRI, that children remembered letters better when they wrote them out than when they merely studied them. Adults have been shown to respond in a similar way, particularly when learning a new set of symbols or characters.
But does hand-writing have the upper hand over typing where memory is concerned?
There is some evidence to indicate that it does.
On a keyboard or typewriter, every letter or symbol is exactly the same touch (those haptics again). With a pen or a pencil, as University of Washington educational psychologist Virginia Berninger has noted, your hand is acknowledging each stroke involved in making that symbol or character. Your brain seems to pay more attention when your hand is so invested. Her studies, often conducted with other researchers, have found that schoolchildren who hand-write have better recall.
“The physical act of writing or tracing provides an additional layer of memory,” write three other researchers from the University of Central Florida, Timothy J. Smoker, Carrie E. Murphy and Alison K. Rockwell. Hand-writing involves distinct, specific movements. Typing is the same, repetitive movement. Handwriting, say these researchers, “creates more context, thereby increasing retention.”
This results in more than simply remembering the letters you wrote. It can make you a better note-taker.
Philip Hensher, the author of The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, is also a frequent classroom lecturer. He can tell you which students do the worst and the best in his classes:
“The students who make no record…do worst….The second worst are the ones who plonk a tape recorder on the desk….The worst ones after that are the ones who get out their laptops, and type furiously as you speak….because typing as someone talks encourages transcription without much thought.”
And the best?
“The very best students are the ones who take out a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the things that they think are interesting as you talk, making sense of it as they go.”
A 2011 study conducted by Tina Weston and Randy L. Newman at the University of Manitoba corroborates clinically what Hensher found empirically. Taking notes by typing on a laptop worked better than hand-writing notes if the students were tested immediately, but this advantage disappeared if testing was delayed.
“Handwriting,” write the Manitoba researchers, “is more likely to withstand the test of time.”
In a virtual world, then, there is still virtue—and value—in the physical. And, says technology forecaster Paul Saffo, “it isn’t just the ink. It’s the interaction of ink and paper and stylus.”
He is using stylus in its ancient reference to a writing utensil. But what about the new definition of stylus—the kind you use to tap an iPad and a smartphone? How will writing and learning and memory change, the more we use a 21st-century stylus to write on a 21st-century tablet?
In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, author Charles Duhigg tells us that for an activity to become a habit, there must be not just a cue and reinforcement but also a craving.
Many of us came quickly to crave email, then smartphones, then e-readers and tablets. We’re teaching ourselves new habits as far as how we read as well as write. Our brains have apparently readily engaged with the digital.
So does it really matter if we no longer write by hand, even if it can be beneficial? Most of us can’t easily read Middle English, either, but we can readily find a modern-English version of The Canterbury Tales.
True. But here’s the thing: we have a unique opportunity in this decade to use both these skills, hand-writing and digital printing—whether the latter be keyboarding or texting or writing through voice-recognition software. Why not leverage all our assets? Use all of our tools—and more of our brains?
We do eventually lose the skills we don’t use. But why relinquish something that’s so easy to hold onto?
Especially since we now know that the kinesthetics of writing by hand affects how we think by brain.
“I think, therefore I am,” wrote Descartes long ago. Perhaps today he would say:
“I write, therefore I think.”
What think you?