What Happens To Your Brain When You Write?

by mikejari1 min read30th Mar 20213 comments

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NeuroscienceWriting (communication method)World ModelingRationality
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In this age, we are typing on keyboards more frequently than writing by hand. 

It is common to see people typing notes on laptops at conferences, lectures, or meetings and do freelance copywriting on laptops at home. 

Typing is more convenient and faster, but research shows that handwriting improves the quality of learning. 

As per a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University and UCLA, respectively, published in Psychological Science, the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to learning. 

Here are the three scientific links between handwriting and brain function:

1- Improves Short-term and Long-term Memory

Certain regions in our brain become active while writing.

One such region is Hippocampus which is present in the temporal lobe. Its primary functions include learning and memory. 

As per a research paper published on PMC, handwriting activities are positively linked to hippocampal volume and memory in multiple Sclerosis. 

Hippocampus stores memory and transforms short-term memory into long-term. This region of the brain gets activated when you start writing. 

Another region in the brain is the Caudate Nucleus

It is located in the cerebrum and processes your memories. Caudate Nucleus stores information of skills that come by practice or repetition. It uses stored memories in your brain to help you act in the future. 

Thus, when you start to write, the caudate nucleus gets highly activated in the brain.

2- Sharpens Critical Thinking

As per a Wall Street Journal article, writing that engages your memory and motor-skills is a great cognitive exercise for those who want to keep their minds sharp as they grow old.

Writing helps your brain to learn letters and shapes. It improves idea composition and expression and develops motor skills.

There is a unique relationship between hand and brain when composing thoughts and ideas.

Virginia Berninger, who is a professor at the University of Washington, considers handwriting different from typing. As per her, handwriting requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter. On the other hand, typing involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says that sequential hand movements used in handwriting activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking and working memory.

As per a study done by Neuro-scientist Martin Lotze, there is increased activity in the wide network of regions of the brain during the creative writing process.

In his experiment, Martin Lotze noticed the link between writing and Broca’s area

Broca’s area is located in the front and lowest part of the frontal lobe. It is a major component in neurologic language functioning. It gets highly activated in the left hemisphere of the brain if the person is right-handed.

3- Increases Neural Activity leading to a Healthy Brain

As per research conducted at Indiana University, just the act of writing by hand can develop creativity. High-tech MRI has shown that writing by hand increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, just like meditation.

The research shows that writing by hand slows down your breathing and gets you into a zone where words flow from your brain. Thus, making writing an effective method for de-stressing. 

Final Thoughts

The amalgamation of memory, motor skills, and slower pace handwriting helps remove your block by pulling you away from the unblinking eye of the laptop. 

Thus, writing stimulates brain activity, helping you to stay sharp as you become old. 

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:10 PM
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I seem to remember reading that the active ingredient here is actually speed. When typing, it's easy (with practice) to note most of what is presented almost verbatim. But handwriting is inherently slower, resulting in a condition where you have to do a lot more summarization. The act of summarization leads to better learning because you have to assimilate the ideas more completely in order to condense them into just a few words. Then, you have to unpack those few words into the complete idea when you study, leading to better practice. With a little discipline, you can go through the same steps on a keyboard and achieve the benefits of both styles.

I think I know where I read that, let's see if I can find the source...

There it is. Sönke Ahrens gives a very similar explanation in his excessively named book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Writers in chapter 10.1, and he cites Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014.

Anti-clickbait note: The book is about the Zettelkasten method, and focuses on heavily cross-referencing notes so you can follow the logic chains in situ instead of having to reconstruct them every time you want to remember a thought. The arguments he makes for taking structured notes are pretty good, but Zettelkasten is far from the only note-taking method that does the things he likes.

Similarly, if I'm writing something original, then if I'm typing I can type relatively close to the speed of my thought - it feels like my words are only somewhat trailing behind the shape of what I'm about to say. But if I'm writing by hand, there's more "lag", with it feeling like it takes much longer for my writing to catch up to the thought.

On the other hand, this feels like it has positive consequences; the words taking longer to write out, means that I also spend more time processing their content, and maybe the writing is a little better as a result. But having to wait for so long also feels frustrating, which is why I mostly don't do it.

Yeah, that echoes my experience too. Also, I notice that writing on my phone is partway between the two: a bit more thoughtful than typing on a keyboard, a good bit faster than pen and paper. Screen size is a big downside, though.