Exercising the brain: handwriting vs. typing

« previous post | next post »

Elegant writing by hand has always been a trial for me.  The harder I try to make my handwriting presentable, the more it turns out looking like chicken scratches.  I'll never forget how my second grade teacher, Mrs. Kiefer, was in despair over my poor penmanship, almost to the point of crying.  "Vicky," she would say, "you are such a good student in all other respects, why can't you write better?"  It's the same way with my brother Denis.  Watching him write, and seeing the product as it emerges on the page, it is obvious that forming letters on the page is a kind of suffering for him.  And yet, both Denis and I prefer to compose whatever we really care about on paper — be it a poem, an essay, or just random thoughts.

I'm a super fast typist, and I can spew out things on a computer screen almost as fast as I normally talk.  It's easy as abc.  When I do so, however, I'm not thinking, I'm just gurgitating.

Currently, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have been studying exactly what happens in the brain when a person writes letters and words by hand.  What they are finding is that this neuromuscular activity stimulates creativity.

"Why writing by hand beats typing for thinking and learning", by Jonathan Lambert, npr (5/11/ 24)


If you're like many digitally savvy Americans, it has likely been a while since you've spent much time writing by hand.

The laborious process of tracing out our thoughts, letter by letter, on the page is becoming a relic of the past in our screen-dominated world, where text messages and thumb-typed grocery lists have replaced handwritten letters and sticky notes. Electronic keyboards offer obvious efficiency benefits that have undoubtedly boosted our productivity — imagine having to write all your emails longhand.

To keep up, many schools are introducing computers as early as preschool, meaning some kids may learn the basics of typing before writing by hand.

But giving up this slower, more tactile way of expressing ourselves may come at a significant cost, according to a growing body of research that's uncovering the surprising cognitive benefits of taking pen to paper, or even stylus to iPad — for both children and adults.

In kids, studies show that tracing out ABCs, as opposed to typing them, leads to better and longer-lasting recognition and understanding of letters. Writing by hand also improves memory and recall of words, laying down the foundations of literacy and learning. In adults, taking notes by hand during a lecture, instead of typing, can lead to better conceptual understanding of material.

"There's actually some very important things going on during the embodied experience of writing by hand," says Ramesh Balasubramaniam, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Merced. "It has important cognitive benefits."

When I contemplate what the essential difference between handwriting and typing is for creative thought, it seems that the former forces you to ponder, to slow down, to draw deep connections, to reflect, while the latter invites you to let verbiage flow freely.

A slew of recent brain imaging research suggests handwriting's power stems from the relative complexity of the process and how it forces different brain systems to work together to reproduce the shapes of letters in our heads onto the page.

Both handwriting and typing involve moving our hands and fingers to create words on a page. But handwriting, it turns out, requires a lot more fine-tuned coordination between the motor and visual systems. This seems to more deeply engage the brain in ways that support learning.

The npr article offers much more anecdotal and experimental evidence in favor of introducing children to handwriting from the very beginning of literacy training.  Here on Language Log, we have often discussed the relative benefits of cursive vs. printing.  That, I believe, is largely a matter of esthetic preference.  More important is the dichotomy between handwriting (whether cursive or printing) and typing.  It would be an educational and cultural tragedy if we simply let learners tap out their messages on a keyboard before they have become intimately familiar with the cognitive power of writing by hand.


Selected readings

[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 10:50 am

    … which leads me to wonder whether brain imaging research might also demonstrate significant differences between the brain activity of Chinese children writing hanzi and Western children writing words.

  2. Peter Grubtal said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 11:34 am

    Victor –
    are you left-handed?
    Perhaps I shouldn't generalise from my own experience, but I think few left-handers have a good hand. But then again, my mother was an exception.

  3. Dick Margulis said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 11:56 am

    The conclusions of such studies may accurately reflect the average (mean, median, and modal—all of them), but they do not reflect a global truth. I would posit that it says nothing about the way Victor's, Peter's or my brain works. As I on more than one occasion have had to remind a physician, a statistic is not a diagnosis. And no, I cannot read my own handwriting.

  4. KeithB said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 12:51 pm

    I believe that it was college that wrecked my handwriting – and this applies to doctor's too. I had fairly decent handwriting through high school, but the high volume of note taking changed my writing into a scrawl.

    I will never hope to get to the level of my Mom's generation.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 3:32 pm

    And no, I cannot read my own handwriting.

    I absolutely refuse to write so fast that I couldn't read my own handwriting.

    For this reason I once flunked a university exam – I knew all the answers, I just couldn't write them all down in the allotted time even though I was writing nonstop. The professor was a narcissist who then summoned me to his office and blathered nonsense about nature optimizing for performance.

    I waited till another professor held the same course, retook the exam, and got the best mark.

  6. Mike Anderson said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 5:45 pm

    While it has unarguable benefits, sometimes digital technology makes us act stupid. Are you really going to pop up a smartphone app for a 5-item grocery list? If you bump into someone's unattended car in a parking lot, will you email yourself a note and go to Kinko's and print it out to place under the windshield wiper of the damaged car? And I can hardly think of anything less romantic than a Valentine's Day Instagram to your beloved.

    Ditto for QR codes; I ain't eatin' anyplace that requires a smartphone to read the menu. In little tiny print, along with all the other SmartPhoneys in the joint.

  7. Don Keyser said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 7:31 pm

    Ah yes, handwriting! Gone the way of the Edsel, Betamax, Walkman, the transistor radio, and knowing how to diagram a sentence.

    Takes me back to my favorite report card of all time. Third grade. My elementary school was public, but "special" in the sense it was attached to a state teacher's college, and so we "benefited" from the latest innovations in education. Or something.

    One of those enlightened "benefits" was that on our quarterly report cards we received a letter grade in each subject, but the main part of that report was a written portion. And so my third grade teacher reported to my parents (roughly) that "Donny (as I was known in elementary school) has shown a marked improvement in his penmanship since getting fitted for a pair of glasses."

    Yeah. As later generations might have put it, "No s**t Sherlock. I could finally see the damn paper. What took you dolts so long to figure out I couldn't see anything more than a foot or so away?"

    A quaint vestige of the very distant past.


  8. RfP said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 7:42 pm

    I'm with Dick Margulis on this.

    I never did write too well by hand. ("He never learned to read or write too well / But he could play the guitar just like ringin' a bell." Okay, I'm not too bad at the whole reading thing.)

    But these days I couldn't handwrite legibly even if my life were at stake—now that I've been liberated so completely by the invention and adoption of word processors and smartphones.

    I'm a visual thinker, so you'd think I could pull it off, but I just can't. For example, someone who was more than an acquaintance and who happened to see my signature at one point several decades ago (ages before it evolved into its current lazy squiggle) immediately glanced suspiciously at me and then averted their eyes, as if I were a psychopath.

    I don't think I am.

    But more to the point, whatever creativity I might have is impaired by a pen or a pencil, and the speed with which I type has no direct bearing on how quickly I write!

    When the words come, … they just come.

    And then there are the days and weeks and months—of desperate, agonized longing.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 7:48 pm

    @Peter Grubtal

    No, I am not left-handed, nor is my brother Denis. On the other hand (!), brother Dave has excellent handwriting for a male, and he is left-handed. He handwrites voluminously in his journals and notebooks every day. Likewise my sister Sue, who had beautiful handwriting, and my schoolmate Lynn Edwards. However, Dave, Sue, and Lynn all had to go into contortions to position the paper so they could write legibly.

  10. RfP said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 8:04 pm


    There's a simple three-part test for which hand is dominant: first, wring your hands together, side by side, as if you were getting all of the water out of a washcloth; then clasp your hands together; then clap your hands.

    The hand which rolls forward from the top (I hope that makes sense) in the first test is your dominant hand; likewise for the hand whose thumb is on the outside of the other thumb in the second and third tests.

    I was an unfortunate victim of an overcorrection for forced right-handedness.

    In other words, when I was a kid, they knew they'd been forcing many people who were left-handed to write with their right hand. So in my case, when they started to try to make up for this, there were certain people, myself included, who were made to write with the wrong hand. In this case, the left hand. Which I still use to this day on those rare occasions when I must put pen or pencil to paper.

    That's almost certainly part of my problem. And for you and your brother, coming from the other direction, it's at least conceivable that you were both actually left-handed like your siblings and that this just became engrained rather than being diagnosed.

  11. RfP said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 8:05 pm

    * "this putative right-handedness just became engrained…

  12. Don Keyser said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 8:15 pm

    With apologies, one more reminiscence from ancient times.

    Following my M.A. work, I applied for assorted U.S. government positions and therefore was obliged to take the usual battery of written, oral, polygraph and psychological exams. Of them, NSA's was most memorable, for a number of reasons.

    In preparing myself, after a fashion, for those tests, I made use of a popular book at the time entitled "How to Beat a Personality Test." I read through it with considerable amusement. And lo, to my astonishment, some of NSA's written exam was drawn from the materials offered as sample reference material.

    One was … no joke … the "handwriting test." The applicant was asked simply to write a few paragraphs on any subject of his choosing.

    I was primed for it thanks to the reference book. So I knew that the graphologists would be looking in particular for:

    — failure to cross t's and dot i's — a sure sign of inattention to detail, disqualifying for one aspiring to a career in NSA
    — failure to maintain a consistent slant — a sure sign of insecurities or even psychological disorders
    — excessively large or excessively small handwriting — the former denoting a too-healthy ego [see: John Hancock, Declaration of Independence], the latter suggesting timidity or, worse, a disposition to conceal things

    There were a great many other indicators of one thing or another to "the trained eye of a professional (!!!) graphologist."

    So I probably managed my best penmanship since, say, third or fourth grade of elementary school. I passed muster with the graphologists and others on the team.

  13. RfP said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 8:34 pm

    Likewise with an apology, but I want to be crystal clear in stating that I firmly believe that all students should learn how to write by hand—for many, many reasons.

  14. R said,

    June 21, 2024 @ 11:41 pm

    I prefer to write by hand, even though writing by hand is hard for me. It just feels better as a process. I have acquired brain damage (specifically, missing a chunk of my cerebellum) and studied Japanese for maybe half a year, and I never learned to reproduce any kana from recall. I had to look through my tests to see the characters I wanted to write for me to be able to write them.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 5:47 am

    RfP — "There's a simple three-part test for which hand is dominant: first, wring your hands together, side by side, as if you were getting all of the water out of a washcloth; then clasp your hands together; then clap your hands" — test 1, right hand; test 2, left-hand, test 3, unsure (right passive at bottom, left active at top). I write with my left hand, use my right hand for a screwdriver or hammer, can play table tennis with either/both.

  16. RfP said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 6:40 am

    Philip — It happens to the best of us!

    I was trained as a musician from the time I was in grade school, played professionally in my teens and twenties, and was always instructed to play as if I was right-handed—fortunately for my sanity and for my capabilities as a performer.

    I (Californian here) eat like an Englishman (knife always in my right hand, fork always in my left; as opposed to the American practice of using the knife in the right hand, and then switching to using the fork with the right hand when not cutting anything with the knife) thanks to an important English influence in my formative years. This actually works pretty well in light of my left-handed upbringing.

    …And I avoid pens and pencils at all cost, thanks to (not) being left-handed, but being instructed in penmanship as if I were.

  17. Randy Hudson said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 8:20 am

    Speaking of lost arts, I wonder how shorthand would fare in comparison with longhand and typing.

  18. Mark P said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 9:22 am

    The 24-25 year-old daughter of a friend has said she wishes she could write in cursive; all she learned was printing.

    I am skeptical of the research (or conclusions) about writing by hand versus typing. Does it apply to actual typewriters as well? If I had to write a full page by hand instead of on a keyboard, I think the frustration would kill me. I can’t write creatively by hand; I can’t keep with my mind.

    On the other hand, 50 years or so ago when I was a newspaper reporter, I took detailed notes on my little reporter’s notepad. I found that the note-taking process helped my memory tremendously. I seldom had to refer to my notes when I got back to the newsroom and sat down at my terminal. Yes, we had computer terminals even back then.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 12:41 pm

    I found that the note-taking process helped my memory tremendously.

    That's yet another such thing that's widespread but not universal. For example, I'm incapable of taking notes. I can't listen and write at the same time (unless it's an actual dictation and the content is unimportant!).

    I can’t write creatively by hand

    I can, and did in school; but I switched to typing my homework on a computer as soon as possible (late 90s), because I found being unable to revise almost anything too constraining. You have to plan ahead pretty far, in a lot of detail, before you write a sentence or two by hand. (…Also, of course, I find handwriting physically much more exhausting than typing on a computer keyboard, see above.)

  20. Mark Metcalf said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 2:03 pm

    The only time that I could claim nice handwriting was as a 47-week Russian language student at DLI. A couple months into the course we were introduced to the joys of диктовка – dictation – daily hour-long handwritten Russian language transcription exercises. Because every dictation was graded for accuracy, grammar, and/or spelling, we carefully wrote the cursive Cyrillic words and the process corrupted our English language handwriting. To this day, I still have to think before I write a cursive English 'd', lest a cursive Russian 'd' get written instead.
    And yes, I think that daily handwriting exercises certainly helped us to learn the Russian language. Just like writing pages of Chinese characters as homework helped us to better comprehend Chinese.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 3:56 pm

    Nowadays, I mostly hand print, reserving cursive for thank you and sympathy notes.

    Just to check, however, I just wrote out the following three test sentences:

    This is a test of my handwriting.
    The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
    Jackdaws love my blue sphinx of quartz.

    I realize it would be easier to just scan this and post it for your perusal, but in this age of identity theft and AI generation, I don't want to put that sort of thing out on the interwebs to be scraped.

    However, I can share these observations and memories:

    My writing reflects a highly ideosyncratic variation on standard cursive, which I innovated many years ago. While mostly neat-ish, it is sufficiently different from the standard that it is hard to penetrate.
    In particular, I begin words without a lead-in stroke and end most words without a lead-out stroke.
    My y and z are pretty much indistinguishable from one another, as are n, u, and r.
    I typically write f, i, j, and l (lower case L) and sometimes t so that there is no lead-out to the next letter. This does not cause adjoining letters to appear to be from another word, as I leave much greater spaces between words than I leave between these detached letters. This is a later innovation; previously I used non-standard lead-ins and lead-outs which were reported to me as being impenetrable, so I modified them.
    If a lower case t is followed by an i, the cross stroke of the t is continued into the downstroke of the i.
    Similarly, if an upper case t is followed by an i, the cross stroke of the t is continued into the downstroke of the i.
    My x is an upstroke from top left to bottom right, looping around for a continuous stroke from to right to bottom left, where it ends.
    My lower case q doesn't close the descender, going directly from the bottom to the lead-in for the typically immediately following u.
    It's not in my test sentence, but my capital Q makes the cross stroke continuouse to the lead-in for the typically immediately following u.
    The loop in the g gets scrunched almost to non-existence.
    In particular, the sequence of "dw" looks like an h.

  22. Chas Belov said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 3:57 pm

    Sorry about the spacing. It appears the board doesn't support list markup.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 4:01 pm

    And a correction:

    Similarly, if an upper case T is followed by an h, the cross stroke of the T is continued into the downstroke of the h.

  24. Daniel Deutsch said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 4:17 pm

    Meanwhile, from L. van B.


  25. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 22, 2024 @ 6:01 pm

    Are you really going to pop up a smartphone app for a 5-item grocery list?

    I regularly do so.

    I prefer pen-and-paper for note-taking at work, though. When making a grocery list, the effort to pop up the app is immaterial, as is the slowness of typing at a smartphone*, but when taking notes at a meeting, I want to minimize the amount of time and attention consumed by the writing process.

    * For me, typing at a (physical) keyboard is faster than writing by hand, but writing on a touch screen much slower. I'm fully aware that this isn't universal, and in particular that many youngsters can type on their phones with terrifying speed.

  26. maidhc said,

    June 23, 2024 @ 2:07 am

    I transferred to a school where everyone had already learned to write cursive, but I hadn't and nobody bothered to teach me. So I struggled with illegible handwriting so some years until I went to a more progressive school where we learned to write italic script with a fountain pen. I have continued to do so ever since. Not always with a fountain pen, but nowadays increasingly so, when I consider the amount of single use plastic that goes into ballpoint pens.

    Italic script has many advantages over cursive. It always annoys me when people use "cursive" as a synonym for "writing with a pen".

  27. Bloix said,

    June 23, 2024 @ 5:48 am

    "[handwriting" forces you to ponder, to slow down, to draw deep connections, to reflect, while [typing] invites you to let verbiage flow freely."

    When I used to draft briefs and memos by hand – to be passed to the secretary once finished – I could tell when I'd a reach point where I hadn't worked out my argument sufficiently: my handwriting would start to get smaller.

  28. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 6:06 pm

    I did a Ctrl-F intent and saw that nobody so far has used the word "intention."

    Holding a writing instrument, and especially a pen, over a piece of paper, requires you to form an intention in ways that reaching for a keyboard does not. The neatness or not of the result is a measure of your ability to actualize the intention, if not of the purity of the intention itself. Personally I think purity of intention accounts for a lot. It's a cultivatable skill, not a talent.

  29. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 6:10 pm

    As for the difference between cursive writing and printing, cursive is named that for a good reason. It is the running hand, where printing plods. Someone will always come up with an example of a draftsman they know who could print perfect machinelike block characters faster than most people can scribble, but that is talent, probably, or a much more difficult skill. If you can't write in cursive faster than you can print, and you're not that rare draftsman, you just haven't practiced enough.

  30. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 8:46 am

    Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    [TRUTH! Including:]

    Purity of intention […] is a cultivatable skill, not a talent.

    It seems that Leonardo DaVinci believed in this so much that he taught himself to write backwards! I know correlation /= causation, but, gosh, he was awfully creative, wasn't he? So, now, in the era of micro-fine uniball whatnot, there's really no excuse for lefties like us (Leo, et. al.) to cultivate penmanship at least at the level of self-legibility, no?

  31. Rodger C said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 10:07 am

    Maidhc, I find it odd to not classify italic as a kind of cursive. It always annoys me when people use "cursive" as a synonym for "the loopy, foofy cursive I learned in school"–in my case, a form of Palmer-method scrivener hand taught with an obsession for connecting everything and a set of stroke exercises ("PUSH! PUSH!") that must have contributed to killing it.

  32. Rodger C said,

    June 25, 2024 @ 1:18 pm

    PS I taught myself italic script in my first semester of grad school in 1968, after discovering the Puffin book on the subject.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment