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The Cost of Losing Handwriting

By Michael Castelluccio
June 1, 2018
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Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, recently demonstrated that handwriting and typing on a computer involve distinct and separate brain patterns. The two are not at all equal in their ability to stimulate thought and enable recall, and today we’re in the process of losing the better of the two skills.

 

“TAKE SOME NOTES”

 

That request used to be followed by grabbing a pencil or pen. Now, it’s more likely to prompt a tap on a glass screen or QWERTY keyboard—responses, unfortunately, that are accompanied by a reduced involvement of neurological systems that are normally engaged in writing.

 

The New York Times article “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” quotes Stanislaw Dehaene, psychologist at College de France, on handwriting vs. keyboarding: “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

 

Brain imaging shows that handwriting involves both sides of the brain. Cursive writing, particularly, requires fine motor control over the fingers, and it forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing. Keyboarding trains you to forget about your hands on the keys as you work. Touch-typing requires rote movements that trade awareness for speed, sort of like those stretches of road that you drive semiautomatically without being able to visually recall the distance covered. In both cases, memory weakness is due to the fact that you can remember more only when you more closely pay attention to the events at hand.

 

KINDS OF CLASSROOM NOTEBOOKS

 

Students using laptops in class can take more notes than those who follow the lecture with handwritten notes. Their notes are also likely to be more complete and verbatim because they’re recording faster. Despite the mechanical efficiency, three studies involving hundreds of students in 2014 from UCLA (Daniel Oppenheimer) and Princeton (Pam Mueller) verify that those with paper notebooks generally remembered and understood more of what they were recording than the group using laptops. The researchers speculate that the computers impair learning because their use results in shallower processing. The laptop users did take more notes, but those who wrote out their notes had a stronger conceptual understanding of what they were recording. The researchers concluded that’s due to how much easier it is to “rely on less demanding, mindless processes when typing.” The advantage of handwritten notes prevailed even when the testing was done a week after the note-taking session, when you might expect that verbatim content would give the typists an advantage in preparing for the test.

 

This problem is compounded by a generalized turning away from handwriting in our lives outside the classroom. Docmail, a U.K.-based mailing company, conducted a recent study that found one in three participants “had not been required to produce something in handwriting for more than half a year.” The subjects also admitted their handwriting was noticeably declining. The same complaint had previously been noted in a 2012 study where 33% of those responding said they had difficulty reading their own handwriting.

 

ONE SOLUTION

 

One way around the devolution of this skill might be to extend the handwriting classes in primary school to two or three years, but that seems unlikely given the current turf wars between iPads and Chromebooks in schools around the country. Computers offer many other educational bonuses online that lined paper can’t compete with, starting with networks, student-teacher email contacts, and, of course, the planet-size library resources of the internet.

 

There are personal conservation measures you can take besides stocking up on Moleskine or marble composition notebooks. Handwrite on your computers, tablets, and smartphones. The styluses are getting much better, with one of the best now available for Apple tablets. The Apple Pencil will open those circuits your keyboard closes. Get a notebook app like Notability or Notes Plus and start building a library of notebooks.

 

One final note. If you find writing on glass a little strange, check out the new reMarkable tablet in this month’s Tools column. It recreates the feel and even sounds like writing on paper with a No. 2 pencil, and there are no interruptions from a browser posting notifications calling you away from the page. There’s no browser, just endless empty lined pages for writing.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 23 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 20th year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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