Psychologist Anne Mangen and physiologist Jean-Luc Velay have given my eighth-grade English teacher cause to feel vindicated. Way back in 1983 he told us that writing out our assignments with pencil and paper was “better for our brains” than typing them on mom and dad’s electric typewriter or using the school computer. (That’s right–“the” computer, singular. And don’t even get me started on the typewriter). Like most things my teachers told me in school, I didn’t pay much attention, and certainly didn’t think to inquire about what “better for our brain” meant. I just assumed that, like most things my teachers said, it was probably true and didn’t really apply to me. But then, twenty-five years later, along came Mangen and Velay.
In 2010, in the scholarly journal Advances in Haptics, they published the results of a study comparing the impact on the brain of writing information using pen and paper as opposed to typing on a computer. (By the way, I freely confess to having no clue what “haptics” means, so I looked it up. Turns out it is the science of touch). The central question is this: Does writing information out by hand make it easier or harder to learn that information than if it was typed out on a computer?
The question is of central concern for educators, but like so many questions that matter in education, it is rarely asked in schools. Everyone agrees, I think, that typing is faster than writing by hand (at least, faster if a person knows how to touch type; I’m not convinced that the two-finger hunt-and-peck method is significantly quicker than using a pen). Not only is it faster, but editing is indescribably easier. So in terms of speed and editing, typing is clearly superior. But does writing by hand have any advantages of its own? It turns out it does, but not in its effect on the content of the writing. Rather, its benefits are seen in what Marshall McLuhan called the massage–writing by hand seems to have benefits not on the writing, but on the writer.
The central idea seems to be what psychologists call “motor memory”. To put it simply, information written out by hand is more easily learned than information typed out on a computer. Each letter formed by the pen registers a distinct impression on the brain by virtue of the manual dexterity used to form it; by contrast, pushing buttons on a keyboard makes no meaningful cognitive impact. To think of it another way, when we write out letters by hand, each letter is unique. Our brain feels the difference. But when we type, each letter on a keyboard is, from the brain’s point of view, identical. It’s all just button-pushing. It’s another example of the modern tension between digital and analog input.
Mangen and Valey are not alone; it turns out that a lot of research has been done on this area, and more studies are being conducted all the time. You can read about some of the results here, both from Mangen and Valey as well as other researchers: