Writing and Remembering

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on note-taking skills. One common experience many people have, and that several people mentioned in response to that post, is that when they take good notes they remember things well enough that they rarely end up having to look at their notes again.

In fact, it seems that writing anything down makes us remember it better. On the other hand, not writing things down is just asking to forget. It’s a kind of mental Catch-22: the only way not to have to write things down is to write them down so you remember them well enough not to have written them down.

Oy.

Curious about this, I decided to do some research into the psychology of writing and memory. As it happens, I have quite a background in the anthropology of memory, none of which did me any good reviewing the psychological literature. There’s not a lot out there, not that I could easily find anyway (not being familiar with the psychological literature probably hampered my search) but what I did find was interesting. Seems it’s not simply wishful thinking that lets us ignore our notes once they’re written; there’s good evidence that the act of writing itself helps us remember things better.

Not all things, though. What’s especially interesting is that writing things down appears to help us remember the important stuff, and that the better our notes are the more likely we are to remember.

But first, some basic neuropsychology (!). The brain is divided up into several regions that process different kinds of information. There are separate regions that process visual information, auditory information, emotions, verbal communication, and so on. Although these different regions communicate with each other (for example, when we look at a piece of art we often have an emotional response, which we might then transmit to the language center of our brain to share verbally) each of them has its own processes it has to complete first. (OK, this is all a vast over-simplification, but what can I say? I didn’t take notes that day in Neuropsychology 101…)

When we listen to a lecture, the part of our brain that handles listening and language is engaged. This passes some information on to our memory, but doesn’t seem to be very discriminating in how it does this. So crucial information is treated exactly the same way that trivia is treated.

When we take notes, though, something happens. As we’re writing, we create spatial relations between the various bits of information we are recording. Spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain, and the act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship seems to filter out the less relevant or important information.

So here’s what happens: in one psychological test involving students watching a lecture on psychology (psychologists who work in academia have a virtually unlimited supply of research subjects — their students!) students who did not take notes remembered the same number of points as the students who did take notes. That is, the mere act of taking notes did not increase the amount of stuff they memorized. Both groups of students remembered around 40% of the information covered in the lecture (which as a professor makes me sad, but I guess that’s the way humans work). But the students who had taken notes remembered a higher proportion of key facts, while those who did not take notes remembered a more or less random assortment of points covered in the lecture.

What this and other tests suggest is that when we write — before we write, although indistinguishably so — we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering the information that we are receiving. That process, and not the notes themselves, is what helps fix ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line.

Which is fine for notes, but what about other kids of writing? Apparently the same thing happens: in building a link between the spatial part of our brain that we need to use in order to make marks on paper that make sense (that is, to write) and the verbal part of our brain that we need to compose meaningful utterances to supply our writing hand with, we strengthen the process by which important information is stored in our memory.

But there’s something else going on, too. When we write something down, research suggests that as far as our brain is concerned, it’s as if we were doing that thing. Writing seems to act as a kind of mini-rehearsal for doing. I’ve written before about how visualizing doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it, and writing something down seems to use enough of the brain to trigger this effect. Again, this leads to greater memorization, the same way that visualizing the performance of a new skill can actually improve our skill level.

The first thing just about every personal productivity writer in the world tells us is to write everything down. If you’re a “writer-downer”, you know how important this is, and you know that it works. Hopefully, now you know a little bit about why it works, too.

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook