How writing by hand helps your memory and creativity

My godchild Morgan is taking a study skills course this summer and was surprised that the teacher thought it was good study technique for them to hand write out an outline of the chapters in their textbooks to prepare for tests. She is a smart kid and she felt writing by hand was a waste of time when she could simply type her notes and outlines on the computer. Her mom and I shared with her how that when we were in school we wrote hand written outlines to prepare for our tests and that it helped.

Her mom and I both being “teachers” also told her that writing by hand helps the brain process information differently and aids memory. Being the research junkie that I am I of course had to look up the research. I found it The Wall Street journal and a bit more on that piece my favorite magazine The Week it is fascinating.  Take out a pen now and write a reminder to read this article to your children.

FYI, I of course being a true nerdette in school outlines the book chapters before classes on the content in one notebook then took notes in class in a second notebook and then the week before the test I used a third notebook the week before the exam to rewrite all the book notes integrating in the class notes and color coded them. )

Recent research illustrates how writing by hand engages the brain in learning. During one study at Indiana University published this year, researchers invited children to man a "spaceship," actually an MRI machine using a specialized scan called "functional" MRI that spots neural activity in the brain. The kids were shown letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters.

"It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time," says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.


Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters' proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

And one recent study of hers demonstrated that in grades two, four and six, children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

AJ Mast for the Wall Street Journal

For research at Indiana University, children undergo specialized MRI brain scans that spot neurological activity.

The Week.

How writing by hand makes kids smarter

Younger Americans are typing or texting more and writing less, even in school — and that's a problem when it comes to brain development

posted on October 6, 2010, at 12:59 PM

Most grade-school children are spending only one hour a week on penmanship. Photo: CorbisSEE ALL 203 PHOTOS

With the ubiquity of keyboards large and small, neither children nor adults need to write much of anything by hand. That's a big problem, says Gwendolyn Bounds in The Wall Street Journal. Study after study suggests that handwriting is important for brain development and cognition — helping kids hone fine motor skills and learn to express and generate ideas. Yet the time devoted to teaching penmanship in most grade schools has shrunk to just one hour a week. Is it time to break out the legal pad? Here's a look at how the brain and penmanship interact:

Writing by hand can get ideas out faster
University of Wisconsin psychologist Virginia Berninger tested students in grades 2, 4, and 6, and found that they not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard — but also generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand. In other research, Berninger shows that the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory.

Writing increases neural activity
A recent Indiana University study had one group of children practice printing letters by hand while a second group just looked at examples of A's, B's, and C's. Then, both groups of kids entered a functional MRI (disguised as a "spaceship") that scanned their brains as the researchers showed them letters. The neural activity in the first group was far more advanced and "adult-like," researchers found.

Good handwriting makes you seem smarter
Handwriting also affects other people's perceptions of adults and children. Several studies have shown that the same mediocre essay will score much higher if written with good penmanship and much lower if written out in poor handwriting, says Vanderbilt University education professor Steve Graham. "There is a reader effect that is insidious," he says. "People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting." And the consequences are real: On standardized tests with handwritten sections, like the SAT, an essay deemed illegible gets a big zero.

This isn't only an English-language phenomenon
Chinese and Japanese youths are suffering from "character amnesia," says AFP's Judith Evans. They can't remember how to create letters, thanks to computers and text messaging. In China, the problem is so prevalent, there's a word for it: "Tibiwangzi", or "take pen, forget character." "It's like you're forgetting your culture," says Zeng Ming, 22. So closely are Chinese writing and reading linked in the brain, says Hong Kong University linguist Siok Wai Ting, that China's reading ability as a nation could suffer.

New technology is part of the solution
New touch-screen phones and tablets, like the iPhone and iPad, are providing a countervailing force, translating handwriting into digital letter forms or making writing practice fun (a $1.99 iPhone app called "abc PocketPhonics" rewards kids with "cheering pencils"). In Japan, an iPhone game called kanji kentei — a character quiz with 12 levels — has become a hit with all age groups.

Science may just be catching up with common sense
Heather Horn in The Atlantic Wire says that while all this research is fascinating, it mostly shows that "scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected." She notes a 1985 article in the Paris Review in which the interviewer asks novelist Robert Stone if he mostly types his manuscripts. His reply: "Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn't be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity."

Patti Wood, MA, Certified Speaking Professional - The Body Language Expert. For more body language insights go to her website at Also check out the body language quiz on her YouTube Channel at