With digital devices increasingly replacing pen and paper, the act of handwriting notes in schools and universities is becoming rarer. Using a keyboard is often recommended as it is faster than handwriting. However, it has been found that handwriting improves spelling accuracy and memory.
To determine if the hand’s writing process leads to better brain connectivity, Norwegian researchers examined the underlying neural networks involved in both forms of writing.
„We demonstrate that when writing by hand, the brain’s connectivity patterns are much more elaborate than when writing by machine on a keyboard,“ said Prof. Audrey van der Meer, a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and co-author of the published study in Frontiers in Psychology. „Comprehensive brain connectivity is known to be crucial for memory formation and encoding new information, which is beneficial for learning.“
The Pen is Mightier than the (Keyboard) Board
The researchers collected EEG data from 36 university students, who were repeatedly asked to write or type a word that appeared on a screen. When writing, they used a digital pen to write in cursive directly on a touchscreen. When typing, they used a single finger to press keys on a keyboard. High-density EEGs, measuring electrical brain activity using 256 small sensors, were recorded for five seconds during each prompt, placed in a net and worn over the head.
Connectivity between different brain regions increased when participants wrote by hand, but not when they typed.
„Our results suggest that visual and motion information gained through precise hand movements when using a pen significantly contributes to the brain’s patterns of connectivity that promote learning,“ said Prof. Audrey van der Meer, neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Movement for Memory
While the participants used digital pens for writing by hand, the researchers said the results are expected to be the same if they were to use a real pen on paper. „We have shown that the differences in brain activity are associated with the careful formation of letters when writing by hand, along with heightened sensory usage,“ explained van der Meer. Since it is the finger’s movement when forming letters that promotes brain connectivity, print handwriting is likely to have similar learning benefits as cursive handwriting.
Conversely, the simple movement of repeatedly pressing the same key with a finger is less stimulating for the brain. „This also explains why children who learned to write and read on a tablet may struggle to differentiate mirror-image letters like ‚b‘ and ‚d‘. They literally did not feel with their body what it’s like to produce these letters,“ van der Meer said.
A Balancing Act
The researchers emphasized the need to allow students to use pens instead of keyboards during lessons. Implementing guidelines to ensure students receive at least a minimum of handwriting instruction could be a reasonable step. Thus, many US states reintroduced cursive handwriting training at the beginning of the year.
However, they also stressed the importance of keeping pace with the continuously evolving technological advancements. This includes awareness of which form of writing offers more advantages under given circumstances. „There is evidence suggesting that students learn more and remember better when taking handwritten lecture notes, while using a computer with a keyboard may be more practical when writing a long text or essay,“ van der Meer concluded.
van der Weel, FR & van der Meer, A., (2024) Handwriting, but not Cursive Script, leads to widespread brain connectivity: a high-density EEG study with implications for education. Frontiers in Psychology. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1219945.