The benefits of handwriting

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Many's the Language Log post in which we've looked at the pluses and negatives of writing Chinese characters (see "Selected readings" below).  These include discipline, character building, aesthetic aspects, myopia, even punishment.  Now, in "Bring Back Handwriting: It's Good for Your Brain:  People are losing the brain benefits of writing by hand as the practice becomes less common", Elemental (9/12/19), Markham Heid examines the psychological and physical effects of writing by hand as opposed to typing fully formed letters with the stroke of a key.

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.

"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."

Other alleged advantages of writing by hand are the development of a larger active vocabulary, deeper reflection on the content of what one is writing, as well as enhanced reading and thinking skills.  Furthermore, online, digital forms of communication are said to promote toxic dialogue.  When one composes on a keyboard, it is so easy to toss off flippant, callous, trollish remarks with hardly a thought about what one is saying or what effect it will have on those who read it.

Judging from personal observations of the writing habits of my family members, friends, fellow passengers, library goers, and above all students, I find that they fall into two broad, general categories:  1. those who enjoy writing on a keyboard and dislike writing by hand — they almost constantly have their tablet, their laptop, or their cellphone 'neath their fingertips; 2. those who cherish writing by hand — many of them have a pencil / pen case with them and a lovingly chosen notebook or diary by their side.  The former spew out reams and streams of verbiage, the latter tend to be more pensive and deliberate about what they write.

Recently, however, I have discovered a third type of writer, one that fascinates me greatly.  They have those tablets with a cover that you flip back and you're ready to write on it.  They can compose or call up a text on the tablet and they can handwrite on it too.  What really blows me away is when they draw lines and circles around different parts of the text or add handwritten notes to it — in different colors for emphasis or to signify categories of meaning!  If they don't like what they wrote, they can effortlessly erase it.  I love to watch them work dexterously; they seem to have the best of both worlds:  typing and handwriting.  As such, their thinking, creation, and analysis operate in multiple modes — and it shows when they scintillatingly start talking about what they've been writing.

Selected readings

[h.t. John Rohsenow]



19 Comments

  1. Chandra said,

    September 16, 2019 @ 4:34 pm

    I was a young adult when Internet use became widespread, so I grew up in the age of handwriting, and have been deeply immersed in the age of typewriting since it began. My personal, anecdotal experiences contradict almost every point made here.

    I find handwriting aggravating and physically uncomfortable, so it does not help me connect better with my emotions, reduce stress, or write more deeply. Writing by hand does not allow me to keep up with the flow of my own thoughts or to redact and rewrite in the moment as typewriting does. I find it much harder to organize my thoughts if I have to write by hand.

    Typing helps me retain more of what I hear in meetings or lectures, because I can quickly type out abridged, rephrased notes and spend more time actually focusing on the person who's talking.

    I'm no more deliberate or reflective when writing by hand, and in fact may be less so because I'm distracted by how uncomfortable I am.

    My experience of toxic dialogue online is that it has less to do with the act of typing, and more to do with the level of remove and/or anonymity between the writer and reader. The existence of bathroom graffiti suggests that it's quite easy to toss off flippant, callous remarks with a pen as well, when you don't know or care exactly who your audience is.

  2. Christopher J. Henrich said,

    September 16, 2019 @ 7:12 pm

    For jotting down a small amount of information, I still find handwriting satisfactory. For thinking "on paper," I now prefer to go on line, with any reasonably powerful editor. It can make easy so many things that are difficult if done by handwriting:
    corrections, deletions, moving bits of text around, adding a word or a sentence or a paragraph anywhere.

    I like to try to organize any complicated topic with an outline, having at least two levels. All I need is the ability to indent, and maybe use boldface for the top-level headers.

  3. Ulf said,

    September 16, 2019 @ 9:57 pm

    "The former spew out reams and streams of verbiage, the latter tend to be more pensive and deliberate about what they write."

    Wow, this is not my experience at all.

    (And don't you think that words like "cherished," "lovingly," "spew," "verbiage," and "pensive" poison the well just a tad?)

  4. B.Ma said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 4:38 am

    Category 1 conflates two separate categories of people: those who dislike writing by hand, and those who like typing.

    I prefer typing with 10 fingers to handwriting (with one hand), but I prefer handwriting to using a touchscreen with two thumbs.

    Whereas others hate anything that they see as "outdated" (handwriting, paying by cash instead of Apple Pay, going shopping in a shop vs Amazon, etc.)

  5. D.B.M.G. said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 5:06 am

    Although I enjoy handwriting and opt for it whenever practicable, I find the easy editing and reshuffling of bits of text afforded by digital editors a huge boon for capturing a flow of ideas as in brainstorming or creative writing – but this is an activity in which recall is largely irrelevant, to me at least.

  6. Leo said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 11:33 am

    I completely second what Chandra says. My handwriting has always been poor, despite remedial attention in school. Most of my education occurred before computers and phones replaced paper as the default writing medium, and I suffered in exams as a result. I'm not a particularly prolific or compulsive writer – I prefer typing because I find it impossible to write legibly by hand, at a reasonable speed, for any stretch of time.

    How I would have fared in the pre-computer age, or in a society like China or Japan where calligraphic skill is more valued, are questions that I sometimes ask myself.

  7. DWalker07 said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 12:46 pm

    My handwriting is so slow that I also cannot meaningfully write long stretches of thought by hand. If I try to write faster, I can't read what I wrote.

    Maybe I just think too fast, but my handwriting speed is about 5% of where it would need to be, in order for this to make sense (for me).

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    Even better is speech-to-text, where you just narrate your thoughts and have them automatically transcribed. Is there any doubt that that's what the mode will be in the not-too-distant future, at a time when both typing and handwriting will be almost completely outmoded?

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 4:01 pm

    For me, all normal written communication is conducted through the medium of a keyboard, whether the end result be an e-mail, a contribution to an online forum such as this one, a formal letter to be printed, or a scholarly article. But for a letter that comes from the heart (a letter of condolence after a bereavement, for example, or a poem to my wife) only a fountain pen and high-quality paper will suffice.

  10. Ellen K. said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 5:37 pm

    I agree with that, as far as emotion focused writing to help someone come to terms with their feelings.

    I tend to think for writing something that will be read by someone pretty much typing is always better because of the ease of editing. (Though a handwritten note can be a nice personal touch.) And I do think the ease of writing, speed, and ability to edit make it easier to think for much writing.

    BUT… for really emotional stuff, writing by hand can be so much better for getting in touch with the emotional self. I've definitely experienced that.

    For my journal writing (writing for myself), usually I type them. It does feel easier to organize my thoughts that way. But there have been times when I needed to connect with something in me, an emotional place, and it was easier to do with handwriting.

    And, yeah, it may be different for someone who learned to type (or other computer entry) at a young age.

    The difference is, as I see it in myself, when handwriting, I can connect direct with an emotional part of self (a particular part of the self), versus when typing, there's a logical part acting as a mediator. I can access that mediator when writing by hand, but I can't bypass it when typing, though I can when writing by hand. (And by hand I mean pen and paper. I don't have experience with handwriting on a computer, other than, of course, signing my name.)

  11. David Marjanović said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 7:05 pm

    I once failed an introductory ecology exam because I just couldn't write fast enough by hand. I was writing nonstop, I knew all the answers, I just couldn't get them on the paper in the allotted time. I refuse to write so fast that I couldn't read the result myself; my handwriting has hardly ever been beautiful, but always consistently legible.

    Category 1 conflates two separate categories of people: those who dislike writing by hand, and those who like typing.

    I prefer typing with 10 fingers to handwriting (with one hand), but I prefer handwriting to using a touchscreen with two thumbs.

    Seconded – but maybe that would be different if I simply had more experience with smartphones.

    The difference is, as I see it in myself, when handwriting, I can connect direct with an emotional part of self (a particular part of the self), versus when typing, there's a logical part acting as a mediator.

    I had no idea that was a thing. The most emotional things I've written were all typed on computers (and usually sent to people I had never seen).

  12. David Marjanović said,

    September 17, 2019 @ 7:11 pm

    Oh, wait. From the article:

    "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.

    For me it probably does.

    Handwriting for me doesn't mean to draw printed letters by hand. I was taught what Americans would classify as a somewhat simple cursive right from the start.* Most letters only have one stroke, even if it's a complex loop; most words barely make it to three.

    The motions in touch-typing are automated, and the motions in "cursive" handwriting are automated. I don't think there's much difference.

    * And then again, much later, in Russian. That was a weird experience, like learning to walk anew.

  13. Keith said,

    September 18, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    I had quite mediocre handwriting as a child in the UK, where we learnt to "print" (from the age of 5) and then to write "in cursive" (from the age of about 9) with a pencil. We had drills of repeating individual letters, then pairs, then triplets and so on until writing full words. Then we were allowed to progress to fountain pens. Fortunately for my generation, these were the type with ink cartridges, not the nib and holder type that my parent's generation had to dip in the inkwell every word. I also discovered that my handwriting was much more legible when I started using a wide, calligraphy nib.

    Then along came computers and so from being about 12 I became quite a competent self-taught typist, but in my student days a personal computer was still not really affordable and definitely not portable. I still took all lecture notes and did all my revision in handwriting, but typed all my term papers at the computer, in a large part so that I could plan and keep within the number of words stipulated by the lecturers.

    I felt that when studying alone, writing out by hand helped to fix the information in my mind much better than just reading and thinking. Often, I didn't even need to re-read what I had written; the act of writing seemed to be enough.

    I've worked as a technical author since 1995, and I would estimate that almost 95% of everything I "write" is in fact typed; I hardly ever write anything by hand, unless it is to annotate a drawing.

  14. BZ said,

    September 18, 2019 @ 3:07 pm

    Somehow I find this unconvincing. It assumes and conflates too many things. For example, I rarely write more than a few words. Yet, I'm barely active on social media (well, there is Quora, where I do find it easy to make careless mistakes if I don't proofread). I prefer a computer keyboard to a phone for typing. And I do most of my typing at work. I certainly don't insult people.

    As for writing about stressful experience, it doesn't seem to do anything for me regardless of whether it's by hand or typed.

  15. Sean M said,

    September 18, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

    Christopher J. Heinrich: on the other hand, its much harder to mix character sets, mathematical notation, sketches, etc. in with typing than handwriting. A lot of things in computing only make sense for people who just work in one or two langauges and the Latin script (just like others only make sense in a country without effective privacy laws which is the same jurisdiction as the builders of the system).

  16. Kate Gladstone said,

    September 19, 2019 @ 4:10 am

    As the "third type" of writer, I've gone to the extent of using a note-taking app (Notes Plus) whose selectable handwriting options include "calligraphy pen" (no great surprise that I'd go this route, since this is what I prefer when I write on paper too). And Notes Plus isn't the only app with that option.
    Seeing one other calligraphy-pen user (Keith) on this comments-page, I wonder if he (or anyone else here) is likewise a user of its electronic equivalent.

  17. Christopher J. Henrich said,

    September 19, 2019 @ 12:29 pm

    Sean M: When the going gets heavy, I may switch to TeXShop, which supports TeX and LaTeX. As for other character sets, I think you can find TeX engines that are savvy about Unicode and scripts whose layout requires very different choices than ours. (Hangul, for example.)

  18. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    September 20, 2019 @ 10:53 am

    I use a text swipe app on my smartphone (which lets you "type" words by swiping from letter to letter without lifting your finger or tapping). I wonder how this fits into the scheme of thought here, with its mix of handwriting-like input on a digital keyboard?

    (incidentally, I am 50, so I grew up in the age of handwriting as well, but count me as among the "Don't enjoy handwriting" group. I type much faster (standard typing, on a computer keyboard, as opposed to the smartphone) and much more fluently than I write by hand.
    Also, interestingly – ever since I learned Cyrillic cursive when I took Russian in high school and college, I have automatically defaulted to writing it instead of English cursive whenever I try to write in the latter., even though I learned it much earlier. I usually have to force myself to stop slipping into Cyrillic!)

  19. David Marjanović said,

    September 21, 2019 @ 1:13 pm

    Oh, BTW, school for me meant pens with ink cartridges from the very start to the end 12 years later – though most of my classmates changed to ball-point pens or fineliners much earlier.

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