What Are The Potential Perils Of Writing Less With Pen And Pencil In The Digital Age?

Ever noticed how your fingers have almost forgotten how to write continuously for a minute or so? You suddenly need to put pen to paper and write out a leave note for school or a long list of groceries and the fingers and palm are soon cramping. The same hands that could write pages some years back can now only type to save their lives!

What’s The Big Deal?

You could argue that typing and digital capture of words is a life skill now and writing the traditional way is nearing its death slowly. It certainly does feel that way given how little we need to “write” daily compared to how much we need to type, scroll, click, and tap. But we aren’t making a fuss about nothing! Writing by hand still has an important role to play in our cognitive and creative processes.

Learning By Writing

Education systems have long relied on writing as a means to practice, record, and demonstrate how much one has learned. And there seems to be merit in this methodology. Writing tends to reinforce learning by

making the writer more involved in the process. Different writing tasks can lead to different kinds of learning. A group of students was studied to demonstrate how using varied types of writing influenced learning. The researchers looked at three scenarios: when the writing was mechanical (answering study questions ); when the writing was just mild composing (taking notes); and when the writing had to show understanding of the subject (analytical essay writing). Essay writing scored highest in influencing knowledge of a topic.1

The Brain When Writing

Writing stimulates cells at the base of your brain known as the reticular activating system. This acts as a filter to all the information the brain needs at a point in time and helps the brain focus. The physical process of writing by hand triggers this system and brings the information to the forefront, demanding attention from the brain.

A study in 2010 reinforced how writing by hand aids learning. Learning activities and instructions involved

one group of pre-school children practicing writing letters while another group focused on learning the letters through visual recognition. Via MRI results, it was shown that the neural activity was far more enhanced for the first group as they practiced writing the letters.2

Another group of researchers found that writing by hand requires a series of strokes (to frame each letter) as compared to finding a letter on a keyboard. This is a more mentally engaging process and requires a synergy of the mind and the body. Writing requires focus, and coordination of thoughts and fingers. The strokes can mirror the mind and also guide the mind – for instance, writing slowly to calm the flow of thoughts. The study also found that children who wrote by hand versus keyboard wrote more words and at a faster rate when expressing their thoughts on a subject.3

Spell It Write

The effect of writing on retention and deeper learning was literally spelled out more clearly by another study. Students had superior spelling skills when they had learned the words by writing as opposed learning words by typing. Recall and retention demonstrated in tests were higher for students when the same material was studied via hand-written notes as against typed notes. Knowing this can hugely benefit educators as they endeavor to balance the usage of digital media and pen and paper in classrooms.4

What Do We Lose Out?

As we punch away on our keyboards, we may feel it’s more convenient and that we gain time. But we tend to lose out also. Handwriting enables creativity, stimulates and involves the brain cells more closely, and allows for a larger mental canvas. When we type we cut,

paste, erase, and edit as we go along. This restricts the free flow of a first draft of thoughts and ideas. Creativity explodes when the mind is not forced to restrict or retract. It needs to be allowed to just express. Pen and paper let you put your thoughts down in multiple ways easily – notes, doodles, annotations.

And finally, handwriting is a great tool to access the mental health of a patient and plenty of work is underway to use handwriting and the story behind the written words to gauge onset of Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses. That’s some more food for thought!