Handwriting and Typing

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in orange, including the primary visual cortex (V1, BA17). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I recently read an interesting article–actually several articles, because the first one piqued my interest enough that I read more–about the differences in brain activity and learning when we write by hand compared to when we type. I was not surprised to learn that there are differences in which parts of the brain are engaged with writing than with typing on a keyboard. It is, after all, a very different physical activity. What really surprised me was that the difference was not isolated to the parts of the brain involved in motor and visual activity but extended to the verbal centers as well. I was also not especially surprised that there is more widespread engagement of the brain with handwriting than with keyboarding in adults, but I think it is interesting that it holds true in children too. Given the changes that have taken place in the past ten to twenty years as computers in various shapes and sizes have proliferated and their roles in our lives have increased accordingly, I would expect that the brains of those old-folks of us who grew up writing our assignments by hand, at least until middle school or high school, would respond differently to handwriting than to typing, but that the effect is present even in children who have lived their entire lives with iPods and laptops around them is remarkable. I also think it’s remarkable that the effect is not just a functional MRI result showing more activity in different centers of the brain but that it is also measurable in the quality and speed of composition of students’ writing–it’s a real effect with differences that are visible without sophisticated monitoring devices, not a theoretical increase in brain activity without any clear effect on output. It begs so many questions about how we learn, how we think, how we recruit new parts of our brains into our activities, that I find myself babbling. Okay, I admit, I’m a nerd. I wonder whether it matters how we usually write–for instance, doing schoolwork by hand while using the computer only for games, or doing schoolwork on a keyboard while handwriting only grocery lists and phone messages–and I wonder if it will change in time. I wonder a lot of things.

 
I find myself grateful that my children’s school has all their assignments done by hand at this stage, though I think that policy changes as they get older. Computer skills and typing ability will clearly be very important for them, so I don’t want the school neglecting that, but if doing their assignments by hand improves their learning, then let’s keep them   writing by hand for a while longer. Now I have a reason besides selfishness to hope to avoid buying a new laptop or fighting with my kids to use mine for a few more years.

 
What I’m really curious about now–but I think would be impossible for them to study–is a comparison among writers, not just students and average adults, who write primarily by hand and those who write primarily by keyboard. Are the writers who write by hand noticeably more creative or more fluent or simply more successful? Or is there no difference? If there are differences, we wouldn’t know how much was due to their medium rather than their personalities and thought processes, but I still think it would be interesting to see. In the meantime, I’m typing, not handwriting, what I’m saying here. But if I find myself writing something really important, even if it’s just a letter to my husband or kids, I’ll probably write it by hand.

 
How Handwriting Trains the Brain

 

The Many Health Perks of Good Handwriting

 

The Pen May Be Mightier Than the Keyboard 

 

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