The benefits of handwriting

Language Log 2019-09-16

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]