Complex Made Simple

Remember the paper and pen? Your brain is much better off with them

We are addicted to keyboards and touchscreens rather than using our hands, a pencil, and some paper. Is this negatively impacting our brains?

When it comes to training your brain, it might be a good idea to put the laptop aside Simple practices like handwriting have system-wide effects on socialization, creativity, and intelligence American teens spent nine hours a day online in 2018

We are addicted to keyboards and touchscreens rather than using our hands, a pencil, and some paper.

Can we learn a lot more efficiently by writing longhand?

Apparently, when it comes to training your brain, it might be a good idea to put the laptop aside. 

Writing triggers the reticular activating system, or RAS, our brain’s filtering system, and lets our brain know it’s time to pay attention.

Also, if you want to kick your brain into action to achieve a goal, or solve a problem, getting it down on paper can prove to be a powerful tool too. 

Pen versus keyboard

A study by Audrey van der Meer, a neuropsychologist, revealed that using a pen, or a digital stylus, involves more of the brain than using a keyboard.

This is because writing “gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on,” she explains.

The same movement is required to type each letter on a keyboard. In contrast, when we write, our brain needs to think about the shape of each letter, watch the letters with our eyes, control our hands to press a pen or pencil and all of this uses and connects more areas of the brain.

Along the way, these processes appear to “open the brain up for learning,” says Van der Meer. So, learning through only one format, digital, could be harmful, she worries.

The study does not recommend banning digital devices. Computers and other devices with keyboards have become essential in many modern classrooms.

But nearly all students will benefit from handwriting and drawing at an early age, the research concludes.

Van der Meer breaks it down simply:

“When you write your shopping list or lecture notes by hand, you simply remember the content better afterwards.”

Simple practices like handwriting have system-wide effects on socialization, creativity, and intelligence. Van der Meer says we should honor the best methods for learning regardless of how convenient, attractive, or addictive our devices are.

Additionally, a 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when subjects completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard.

When you write by hand, you write more thoughtfully. Such mindful writing rests the brain, unlocking potential creativity, says neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre. “Recent neuroscientific research has uncovered a distinct neural pathway that is only activated when we physically draw out our letters,” she writes. “And this pathway, etched deep with practice, is linked to our overall success in learning and memory.”

Pressing a key doesn’t stimulate those pathways the same way.  

Writing longhand also allows people to really figure out what they mean to say, which may help self-expression.   

Yet another new study from the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology argues, handwriting helps children and adults remember information better.  

The team, led by Professor Audrey van der Meer, hooked 250 nodes to each participant’s head to collect 500 data points per second. Once they were strapped in, a dozen 12-year-old children and a dozen young adults wrote by hand, typed, or drew. The clear winner: using paper, not devices.

This goes against the trajectory of education. Out of 19 countries in the EU, Norwegian children and teens rank highest for time spent online, nearly four hours a day, which is double the amount from a decade prior. American teens spent nine hours a day online in 2018.

With distance learning and remote work becoming more prominent due to the pandemic, spending more time staring at a screen could worsen the damage to our memories.