Have you written your to do list for to-day? Did you hand write it or did you use a digital post it on your desktop? The good news is that if you wrote it by hand in the good old fashioned way, you are more likely to remember it. If you used your keyboard for the digital version, this is not so effective for retention. Let us look at the scientific evidence for this and what exactly happens in the brain when we hand write.

The benefits of handwriting.

A friend of mine is learning Japanese and he patiently copies each character out hundreds of times in long columns. This helps him to remember them. Studies suggest that there are other benefits of handwriting as well.

Children can learn to write and remember the letters while doing so. This can improve their ability to form ideas which will then lead to more effective communication. It is an effective way of training the brain. Educationalists still insist that handwriting should be taught in schools. But in 2014 there are plans in 45 American states to drop the teaching of handwriting in favour of keyboard skills. Digital writing is great for our technological age but what are kids missing out on?

This is what worries researchers such as Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay who have been leading research on this at the University of Stavanger in Norway at the The National Centre for Reading Education and Research.

Because the whole process of writing involves visual perception and motor function which are inextricably linked, this activity cannot be ignored in educating children to write. Their research on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) data showed that more areas of the brain were activated when handwriting.

One experiment done by Mangen involved two groups of adults who were given the task of learning a new alphabet which had just 20 letters. The first group was instructed in how to write these characters by hand. The second group was taught by using a keyboard. When the groups were tested after a six week period, the handwriting group were scoring much better on how they remembered the letters. This would seem to suggest that handwriting beats keyboarding for memory retention.

What happens in the handwriting process?

“How utterly bound to the physical world of bodies is writing, one of the awesome products of the human mind.” – Haas 1998

When you start writing with a pen, a complex process starts in the brain. It has been shown that a part of the brain called the RAS (reticular activating system) is stimulated and will also act as a filter to help you focus and get the task done.

You have to learn how to hold the pen, then think of the letters and how they are formed and also how they are joined up in cursive writing. There are complex motor and visual functions at work here.

At higher levels, you are using the brain to transfer knowledge in a meaningful fashion, not to mention how to activate the information for memory retention. Hitting two different letters on a keyboard is not activating the brain in the same way at all. You are also getting feedback on another medium, the screen, so there is a different process involved.

Taking notes in lectures.

It has been estimated that only about two-thirds of students take notes in class. This is an important memory tool for learning afterwards. When we listen to a lecture, we are likely to remember only about 10 percent of the information. Note taking by hand is laborious, whereas typing the information on a laptop keyboard is faster. As Walter Pauk, the director of the reading and study center at Cornell University suggests in his book, “How to Study in College,” you should write out your notes afterwards by hand as this will be a definite help in the learning and memory process. Study the infographic here

Using handwriting to help your memory

As we have seen, handwriting will help our memory retention more than hours of typing on a keyboard. Depending on your learning style, you may find some of the techniques useful.

1. Write it down again and again. Repetition of the process will reinforce your learning.
2. Increase your memory by as much as 70 percent when you go through your notes within 24 hours.
3. If you are a morning person, aim to refresh difficult material early on, as your brain is less tired.
4. Reading and re-reading material is likely to result in a disappointing 20 percent retention.
5. Use mind maps if they help you to remember facts. This is an excellent way of visualizing how various bits of information fit into a concept/plan. They are also more fun to create than simple notes.

Will apps save the day?

The best news of all is that handwriting is far from finished. There are now apps for iPhones on the market to help kids and adults with their handwriting. Kids can use either a finger or stylus to practise forming letters and then words. Adults can use apps where any handwriting input, again using a finger or stylus, is accepted and then converted into email, documents or tweets.

Tell us in the comments below whether you prefer good old fashioned handwriting or do you prefer more digital input to help you remember your shopping list. Now, where did I save that digital post it?

Check out Writing and Remembering: Why We Remember What We Write

Featured photo credit: Penmanship/ KP Werker via flickr.com

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