Handwriting Shows Unexpected Benefits Over Typing

by Denis Storey
January 30, 2024 at 8:35 AM UTC

New research indicates that writing by hand, as opposed to using a keyboard, enhances learning and memory.

Clinical relevance: New research indicates that writing by hand, as opposed to using a keyboard, enhances learning and memory.

  • The study suggests that brain connectivity patterns during handwriting are more elaborate and crucial for memory formation and encoding new information.
  • The study suggests that the careful forming of letters during handwriting, involving precise hand movements and sensory engagement, contributes extensively to the brain’s connectivity patterns that promote learning.
  • The researchers recommend the importance of incorporating handwriting in education, emphasizing the benefits of pens and pencils over digital devices.

Maybe there was something to all those handwriting drills that baby boomers and Gen Xers suffered through in their youth. And maybe all that screen time the younger generations enjoy might have an effect we hadn’t anticipated.

New research shows that writing by hand –  instead of relying on a keyboard – helps boost learning and memory.

“We show that when writing by hand, brain connectivity patterns are far more elaborate than when typewriting on a keyboard,” Professor Audrey van der Meer, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), said in a press release. “Such widespread brain connectivity is known to be crucial for memory formation and for encoding new information and, therefore, is beneficial for learning.”

A New Look at an Old Process

NTNU Professor Audrey van der Meer.
NTNU Professor Audrey van der Meer.

A team of Norwegian researchers wanted to find out if the process of forming letters by hand influenced “greater brain connectivity.” To do so, the team looked at the underlying neural networks involved in writing, whether it’s with a pen and paper or a keyboard and screen.

So, the researchers gathered EEG data from three dozen university students while they repeatedly wrote something down with a digital pen – in cursive – or typed a word that appeared onscreen. The scientists used high-density EEGs, which measured “electrical activity in the brain using 256 small sensors sewn in a net and placed over the head, were recorded for five seconds for every prompt.”

Surprisingly, the researchers noticed that the connectivity of various brain regions jumped when the study participants wrote by hand. They observed no change when the participants typed.

“Our findings suggest that visual and movement information obtained through precisely controlled hand movements when using a pen contribute extensively to the brain’s connectivity patterns that promote learning,” van der Meer added.

Muscle Movement Builds Memory

But what about signing your name makes such a difference over typing it out?

“We have shown that the differences in brain activity are related to the careful forming of the letters when writing by hand while making more use of the senses,” van der Meer explained.

Based on that, using the hand – and fingers – to form letters, the researchers claim that print writing will show similar benefits. Subsequently, simply pushing a key is less stimulating.

Meer pointed out that it’s why kids who’ve learned to read and write on a tablet or laptop struggle to discern between certain letters that can appear alike.

“They literally haven’t felt with their bodies what it feels like to produce those letters,” van der Meer said.

From Handwriting Research to Practice

The data show the importance of having students work with pens and pencils, the researchers insisted, instead of relying solely on iPads and laptops.

The researchers also recommend: 

  • Guidelines to ensure that students receive at least a minimum of handwriting instruction, such as the reintroduction of cursive writing training.
  • Maintaining the implementation of technological advances, including an awareness of what way of writing offers more advantages under which circumstances.

“There is some evidence that students learn more and remember better when taking handwritten lecture notes, while using a computer with a keyboard may be more practical when writing a long text or essay,” van der Meer concluded.

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