Wednesday 18 October 2017

The write stuff is good for you

The ancient art of handwriting may be fading in this digital, screen-based age, but returning to the humble pen could have its benefits

Studies have shown that putting pen to paper can help your cognitive functions
Studies have shown that putting pen to paper can help your cognitive functions

Jamie Ball

How many words have you handwritten, rather than typed, in the last week? What about the last month? While it's a fact that some of us now go for weeks or months without ever holding a pen or pencil, what's less well known are the cognitive effects caused by the demise of handwriting since the onslaught of email and texting in the late 90's.

Since its likely invention in Mesopotamia around 4000 BC and the creation of paper in China in the 2nd century BC, to the proliferation of the ballpoint pen in the 1940s and the steady decline of the cursive (or joined-up) style thereafter, handwriting has gone through many transformations and upheavals over the last six millennia.

"Your ability to read is intrinsically related to your ability to write. There's a symbiotic relationship between these different functions," says Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Leeds, Mark Mon-Williams.

"When you write a particular letter, the shape of that letter will actually feed into the next letter you prepare to write, so it's more likely you remember a motor pattern. This type of physical, spatial association is less pronounced on a typewriter. So the process of actually writing words seems to be intrinsically linked with how we represent words.

"Cognitive skills have traditionally been thought of as an output of the body but, increasingly, what we have realised over the last couple of decades is that, unsurprisingly, these things are completely intertwined: our cognitive abilities are part-and-parcel of our abilities to interact with our environment," says Mon-Williams.

And this is where the psychological process of visual-motor memory (i.e. the memory of a visual pattern and how to regurgitate it via the motor system) leaves typing, neurologically-speaking, in the Dark Ages. From Palaeolithic cave painting through to the hieroglyphic and modern graffiti, visual-motor memory is understood to have presented humankind with an evolutionary advantage that is hoped will remain for at least centuries to come.

However, while the ability to produce and interpret written symbols is a crucial part of every child's development, a lack of handwriting exposure and practice could have far-reaching consequences.

In essence, tapping on a keyboard - from a mobile phone to a desktop computer - does not help children learn how to generate motor commands that result in the hand producing a graphical representation of a memorised shape. And adults, once so schooled and steeped in the mores of handwriting, also have much to gain by staying engaged with the pen.

"We know of the term, 'use it or lose it,' and we know that as people get older it's important they keep their skill base going," says Mon-Williams. "A lot of the evidence suggests that this physical enactment of writing helps your cognitive functions. So I'd say definitely keep that skill going, especially as you get older."

The National Handwriting Association in the UK was established to raise awareness of handwriting as a crucial component of literacy, as well as to foster good practice in its teaching. Chair of the Association, Dr. Angela Webb, spent 12 years as a primary school teacher before becoming a psychologist specialising in the learning needs of children with poor motor co-ordination.

"The evidence for the cognitive benefits for children in learning to handwrite is growing," says Webb, who cites numerous reputable studies over the last two decades that closely link handwriting with progress in reading, spelling, long-term recall, fact retention (in areas of maths) and in producing high-quality written composition.

"Because of the nature of the impact, it is likely that these benefits continue into adulthood. However, despite the anecdotal evidence provided by authors that most prefer to use handwriting for stimulating creative thought, there is little research on this to date."

Until recently, possible links between handwriting and reading were unclear at best, but since 2014 FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) studies in the US have suggested that in the early stages of learning to read, brain activation during letter perception is influenced by numerous factors.

"The findings demonstrate that when individual letters are handwritten, there is early recruitment in the processing of brain regions known to underlie successful reading," says Webb.

In fact, published studies have established that the retention of content is enhanced through the process of writing, rather than typing.

"The motor, or kinaesthetic, memory is known to be powerful and can endure where other memory systems fail," says Webb. "But there is some compelling evidence that long-term memory is enhanced through using the handwritten mode.

"Three studies have found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes by pen.

"They show that laptop note takers tended to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words."

However while both involve the processing of language through a motor delivery of the script, the linguistic processes required for handwriting and keyboarding (e.g. generating words, and retrieving knowledge from long-term memory) lean on orthographic coding and rapid automatised naming.

"However, the two modes have also been found to tap into different areas of processing, unique to each," says Webb.

"For example, the motor simplicity of producing a letter with the simple movement of pressing a key on a keyboard compared with the complexity of conceiving and producing a handwritten letter means that one requires a more complex set of sub-skills than the other."

As for the future of handwriting, it appears if it is to regain anything close to its 20th Century status, then an emphasis must be placed on young people and adults to be able to handwrite legibly and fast enough for the task in hand.

"It is a common misconception that cursive, or joined, handwriting is more effective in achieving these goals, but there is no research to support this," says Webb, who adds that research into learning of letter forms suggests there is greater benefit when the letters are un-joined.

"A recent study found what is often reported by professionals: that young people who have been taught to write in joined-up handwriting may revert to un-joined script as they mature as it is faster and a more accurate and efficient way of writing for them, especially when under time pressure."

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