Writing on the Brain

It’s no surprise that technology is something most of us have come to rely on from day to day. We here at brown ink are obviously thrilled we can inspire others through the web. But what are we missing with the absence of handwriting?  I had always assumed handwriting is good for the brain even before I began to investigate. Once I started looking into it a little more I was blown away. Researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aide fine motor skill development. And that’s just the beginning.

Certain 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, states “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. 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 using a keyboard.

A similar study at Indiana University asked one group of children to practice printing letters by hand while the second group just looked at examples of A’s, B’s and C’s. Then both groups entered an MRI machine disguised as a spaceship which scanned their brains as the researchers showed them letters. They found that neural activity in the first group was far more advanced and adult-like as compared to the second group.

Thankfully, most schools still include conventional handwriting instruction in their primary-grade curriculum. However, according to Zaner-Bloser, one of the nation’s largest handwriting-curriculum publishers, it amounts to just over an hour a week. Not enough time if you ask me!

And it’s not just our school kids who are benefiting. Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand. And some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

Ann Mangen, Associate Professor at the University’s of Stavanger’s Reading Center, questions if something has been lost from switching from pen to keyboard. She believes the process of writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand our brain receives feedback from the motor actions as well as from the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These types of responses are significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing a keyboard.

Not surprisingly, technology has found a way to support the movement. Apps such as ABC PocketPhonics instructs kids to draw letters with their finger or a sytlus. Your child won’t even think they’re learning (isn’t this a good thing?).  For the adults who’ve never adapted well to the keypads on small devices look no further than the WritePad application. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.

I understand that electronic support for handwriting is well-intentioned but why do I still flinch when my son reaches for my iphone to play iWriteWords, a seemingly innocent handwriting game? It’s the old fashioned side of me that would rather stop what I’m doing and sit with my son to practice writing with a pencil and paper. I’m hoping this attitude lasts through our third child’s high school graduation.  Fingers crossed.

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