Writing something down rather than typing it on a computer could help you retain the information better, after researchers found putting pen to paper boosts connectivity between different areas of the brain.
Using a keyboard – whether on a computer, laptop or smartphone – is a relatively quick and easy way to write. Already standard in offices, some students are increasingly using computers and laptops at school.
But these modes of writing are very different, says Audrey van der Meer at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “When you type on the keyboard, you only make very simple finger movements towards the keys and they’re exactly the same movements for every letter you want to write.”
When writing by hand, you have to make detailed motions that are unique to each letter, she says.
To investigate how handwriting and typing differ in their effects on the brain, van der Meer and her colleagues enlisted 36 students in their early 20s.
These recruits had small electrodes placed on their scalps to monitor their brains’ electrical signals. The team then flashed 30 words – such as the Norwegian for king, hedgehog and umbrella – on a screen in front of the participants. For half the words, the participants wrote them down by hand, while the remainder they typed out.
All the participants were right-handed and were instructed to use only this hand when typing or writing. This was to make the results easier to interpret by avoiding crossover between the brain’s two hemispheres, with the right motor cortex controlling left-handed movements and the left motor cortex controlling right-handed movements.
For all the participants, writing by hand led to an increase in connectivity between central parts of the brain and the parietal lobe in the outer part of the brain, with the same not being true for typing.
“Handwriting uses more senses and the body is more involved,” says van der Meer. “That means more of the brain is active and there needs to be communication between these active parts.”
The researchers didn’t test the effects of this increased connectivity, but it has previously been linked to improved memory and learning. However, in their findings they wrote that it “can be taken as evidence that handwriting promotes learning”.
“It’s obviously much easier to use a computer and keyboard, but sometimes it’s better to take notes by hand,” says van der Meer.