People are losing the brain benefits of writing by hand as the practice becomes less common
Not so long ago, putting pen to paper was a fundamental feature of daily life. Journaling and diary-keeping were commonplace, and people exchanged handwritten letters with friends, loved ones, and business associates.
While longhand communication is more time-consuming and onerous, there’s evidence that people may in some cases lose out when they abandon handwriting for keyboard-generated text.
Psychologists have long understood that personal, emotion-focused writing can help people recognize and come to terms with their feelings. Since the 1980s, studies have found that “the writing cure,” which normally involves writing about one’s feelings every day for 15 to 30 minutes, can lead to measurable physical and mental health benefits. These benefits include everything from lower stress and fewer depression symptoms to improved immune function. And there’s evidence that handwriting may better facilitate this form of therapy than typing.
A commonly cited 1999 study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that writing about a stressful life experience by hand, as opposed to typing about it, led to higher levels of self-disclosure and translated to greater therapeutic benefits. It’s possible that these findings may not hold up among people today, many of whom grew up with computers and are more accustomed to expressing themselves via typed text. But experts who study handwriting say there’s reason to believe something is lost when people abandon the pen for the keyboard.
Psychologists have long understood that personal, emotion-focused writing can help people recognize and come to terms with their feelings.
“When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion,” says Virginia Berninger, a professor emerita of education at the University of Washington. Hitting a fully formed letter on a keyboard is a very different sort of task — one that doesn’t involve these same brain pathways. “It’s possible that there’s not the same connection to the emotional part of the brain” when people type, as opposed to writing in longhand, Berninger says.
Writing by hand may also improve a person’s memory for new information. A 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that brain regions associated with learning are more active when people completed a task by hand, as opposed to on a keyboard. The authors of that study say writing by hand may promote “deep encoding” of new information in ways that keyboard writing does not. And other researchers have argued that writing by hand promotes learning and cognitive development in ways keyboard writing can’t match.
The fact that handwriting is a slower process than typing may be another perk, at least in some contexts. A 2014 study in the journal Psychological Science found that students who took notes in longhand tested higher on measures of learning and comprehension than students who took notes on laptops.
“The primary advantage of longhand notes was that it slowed people down,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. While the students who typed could take down what they heard word for word, “people who took longhand notes could not write fast enough to take verbatim notes — instead they were forced to rephrase the content in their own words,” Oppenheimer says. “To do that, people had to think deeply about the material and actually understand the arguments. This helped them learn the material better.”
Slowing down and writing by hand may come with other advantages. Oppenheimer says that because typing is fast, it tends to cause people to employ a less diverse group of words. Writing longhand allows people more time to come up with the most appropriate word, which may facilitate better self-expression. He says there’s also speculation that longhand note-taking can help people in certain situations form closer connections. One example: “A doctor who takes notes on a patient’s symptoms by longhand may build more rapport with patients than doctors who are typing into a computer,” he says. Also, a lot Berninger’s NIH-funded work found that learning to write first in print and then in cursive helps young people develop critical reading and thinking skills.
Finally, there’s a mountain of research that suggests online forms of communication are more toxic than offline dialogue. Most of the researchers who study online communication speculate that a lack of face-to-face interaction and a sense of invisibility are to blame for the nasty and brutish quality of many online interactions. But the impersonal nature of keyboard-generated text may also, in some small way, be contributing to the observed toxicity. When a person writes by hand, they have to invest more time and energy than they would with a keyboard. And handwriting, unlike typed text, is unique to each individual. This is why people usually value a handwritten note more highly than an email or text, Berninger says. If words weren’t quite so easy to produce, it’s possible that people would treat them — and maybe each other — with a little more care.
Health and science writer.