Remember those lined pieces of paper we used when we first learned how to write — light green, with two red lines separated by a dotted one? We worked so hard to form our letters perfectly, but nowadays many of us don’t bother writing by hand at all, let alone writing in cursive. I don’t even write out my grocery lists anymore; they all get typed straight into my phone. However, after reading about a recent study from the University of Tokyo on the topic of writing by hand, I might take up that notepad and ballpoint pen again.
Handwriting and Memory
In the 2021 study, researchers at The University of Tokyo split 48 students and recent graduates into three groups, giving each group the same fictional schedule. The first group took notes on the schedule details using the analog method (a pen and notepad). The second and third groups took notes on tablets and smartphones, respectively. The study authors then took the schedule and notes away from each group and gave participants a task to distract them from the notes they took. After an hour, they administered a memory test, during which each participant wore an MRI device to measure brain activity.
The result? Participants who used pen and paper to take notes writing by hand not only scored better overall on the test, but showed significantly more brain activity in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and recall.
What happens when you write by hand?
Why does writing by hand help sharpen your memory? When you write something out by hand, it slows your brain down, automatically making you more mindful about what you are writing. Because the process takes more time than typing or texting something into your phone, your brain has a chance to focus on what you’re putting down on paper, and gets engaged in a very specific way.
Imagine you’re a college student sitting in a lecture hall, taking notes on a lecture with a pen and notepad. As you listen to the professor speak, your brain is engaged in a filtering process that doesn’t happen if you are typing verbatim on a laptop. Your brain is deciding which pieces of information are the most important, and that’s mental exercise all adults need.
When you write by hand, you retain more details, because there’s more activity happening in the hippocampus. Plus, you’re boosting creativity — and maybe even (depending on your handwriting) creating art!
Is handwriting better than typing?
There are definite benefits to writing by hand, but that doesn’t mean typing is bad for you, or that you should stop doing it. The main benefit of typing, texting, or engaging in any other form of digital communication is speed. Typing just takes less time, period. It also rules out the potential for hand cramps, which can be painful. I tried to write three notebook pages the other day, and only managed to get one and a half written for this exact reason. Ouch!
The process of typing something out can also be more systematic. And if you need to format something, working on a computer is a must, obviously. On the other hand (no pun intended), writing things out helps us maintain dexterity as we age because it strengthens our muscles and forces us to use hand-eye coordination.
Bottom line? The choice between writing by hand and typing things out really depends on context and preference. When it comes down to it, always do what you’re comfortable with. There’s no ‘write’ way when it comes to things like this — so do what works best for you!