Handwriting Is an Overlooked Memory Booster

A notebook and pen can be valuable brain-training tools

Photo: burst/Pexels

IfIf you had both the resources and the inclination, you might be able to get away with never hand-writing anything but your signature ever again. Most of us have smartphones, a computer, and other assorted digital programs and pieces of technology — plus virtual “assistants” like Alexa and Siri — to help us keep our lives in order. These gadgets can capture our to-do lists, schedules, important dates, and other snippets of thought we want to preserve.

But just because it’s technically possible to permanently ditch the notebook for the Notes app doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Research shows that writing stuff down — physically writing, wrapping your hand around a pen and moving it across a piece of paper — is one of the best ways to keep your thoughts organized and your memory sharp. In one study published in the journal Psychological Science, for example, researchers found that people who take notes on their computer tend to retain significantly less information than people who handwrite their notes.

“We found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand,” the study authors wrote. This was in large part because the ones with computers went into mental autopilot: “Laptop notetakers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

When you take notes by hand, you may record fewer words, but that works to your benefit: To take down the ones that really matter, you’ll be forced to actually think in real time about what you’re hearing.

That’s not to say your life would be better if you abandoned your Google calendar and went full Luddite, says Christina Bretz, an occupational therapist and handwriting expert in Lexington, Kentucky. “We need a balance of both in our lives,” she says. And no one’s arguing with the convenience of being able to whip out your phone and dash off a fleeting thought while on the go.

But for the really important things, or when you need an extra nudge to keep yourself focused, writing by hand can be a powerful tool. If you find yourself in a boring meeting, but you don’t want your mind to wander, open your notebook, and you’ll be forcing your brain to concentrate on the information it’s taking in.

You may be able to boost the brain benefits of handwritten notes even more with another long-lost elementary school skill: cursive. It doesn’t just help you take things down more quickly, Bretz says; it also helps you keep your attention on the information at hand, rather than the physical act of writing. “It creates a level of automaticity that means you’re writing faster and still having to think about the content of what you’re putting down on paper, but not about the actual mechanics.”

And in a sea of note-taking apps, it’s telling that some of the latest innovations seem to acknowledge the inherent value in doing things a little bit old school.

“A lot of the tablets and phones and even laptops are coming with software and styluses that actually let you handwrite,” Bretz says. “It’s pretty interesting that these tech companies are bringing that back. It speaks volumes.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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