MIND
February 14, 2011

The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard

Writing by hand promotes learning far better than pressing a key. Now what do we do?

A new study shows that doing it the old-fashioned way – writing with pen and paper – helps the brain learn much more effectively than typing into a computer. If this is true (and the evidence is pretty good that it is), what do we do with this information?

Writing creates a "motor memory" which helps us learn better. This motor memory is formed because there is a connection between reading and writing, but not with typing.

The research team asked participants to learn an unfamiliar alphabet, which consisted of about 20 letters. Half of the participants used paper and pen to learn, and the other half used computers. After three and six weeks, the researchers quizzed the people on what they had learned, by asking them to recall the alphabet and to distinguish between normal and reversed letters. Those who had learned by writing by hand did better in both tests.

To delve even deeper into the issue, the researchers scanned the participants’ brains using MRI. They found that a particular structure, known as Broca’s area, was activated in those who learned by writing, but not in the participants who learned by typing. Broca’s area is important in speech, and also in the perception of action. It even lights up, according to the study’s press release, when we observe someone else engaging in an activity or even look at a piece of equipment related to an activity.

The authors say that writing creates a "motor memory" which helps us learn better. This motor memory is formed because there is a connection between reading and writing, but not with typing.

When we write, our brains get feedback from the muscles that are doing the work — and through this hand-eye circuit, better memories are formed. This is why the pen-users learned the foreign alphabet better than the typers. (The authors also point out that writing takes longer than typing, which may boost learning in itself.)

"Our bodies are designed to interact with the world which surrounds us. We are living creatures, geared toward using physical objects – be it a book, a keyboard or a pen – to perform certain tasks," said study author Anne Mangen in a press release, But some of these objects may facilitate learning better than others. How do we squeeze more writing into our lives? Some writing tasks are more about learning than others. Taking notes by hand in class or in meetings could help you process the information more effectively. Though ditching email for snail-mail may not be an option, there are other interesting ways to make the old paper-and pen method work for you.

Mangen is affiliated with the University of Stavanger (Norway); the paper was published in Advances in Haptics. Source: University of Stavanger news release.

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