Pen vs Keyboard – Brain Wars (or what happens in your brain when you write by hand)

office-620817_1280What differences does it make in your brain if you write with a pen or type on a keyboard? Lots of writers believe that their creative juices flow more freely when they take to handwriting. I happen to be one of them. But is there any evidence that this is so?

I wanted to know, since this week I couldn’t settle in front of the computer, so I picked up my favorite pen, opened a new page in my notebook, and promptly wrote five pages of my novel. Now, this was an A4 notebook, so five pages were lots and lots of words. And apart from that, the five pages have loads of scribbles in the margins, things crossed out and added back in and then crossed out again, additional words to fit into the actual text on the page, and even things I want to look up. In terms of my creative process, it was like writing a first, rough draft and editing it all in the one crazy, ink-induced wordfest.

So I checked up on the interwebz for what exactly was happening between the neurons when I put pen to paper and found out some very interesting facts about handwriting and brains. There were some lovely, airy fairy articles that said things like “Each person’s hand is different: the gesture is charged with emotion, lending it a special charm,” and “your signature is a window to your soul,” but I did try to find Actual Scientific Evidence about the matter. Results were mixed…

You remember more when you take notes by hand.

fountain-pen-1463463_640A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that in the short term, students who took notes on a keyboard and those who took notes by hand remembered the same amount of facts, however those who wrote notes by hand remembered more ideas, which is fundamental to a deeper understanding of a topic. It seemed that keyboard users took more notes, however, they were more likely to type verbatim what the lecturer was saying, and this ‘mindless transcription’ did not translate into memory of the topic.

A week later, when the students were re-tested (and had time to revise their notes), the hand writers came out on top again. Why? It’s possibly explained by a similar study in Intech, which found that writing by hand allows the brain to receive feedback from the person’s motor actions, and this feedback is different to that received when typing. The researchers believe that this difference in neural feedback may be the reason for the better results of the hand writers on the tests.

While this is nice and all, it still doesn’t explain why my writer’s fancy seems to be freed by use of handwriting. I investigated further.

Children ‘idea’ better when they write.

clock-70189_1280Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.

And 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 with a keyboard.

Hmm… I wonder if that would extend out to grownups who haven’t actually been to school for twenty-plus years? That wasn’t particularly tested, and I’m not able to find any information on adult testing about this, but it seems feasible… right?

I still hadn’t found any Actual Scientific Evidence that writing by hand made you more creative. Plenty of anecdotal evidence was found, with a few suggestions as to why it might make the juices flow:

Writing Slows You Down.

Blogger Ava Jae says, “When writing by hand your thoughts often race ahead of the actual writing, and as a result of that, you have a little more time to think about the words you’re actually putting on paper. In addition to this, there isn’t an easy backspace button to press if you write a word or sentence you don’t like, which for me at least, causes me to be more careful with what I commit to paper.”

She prefers to use handwriting for revisions rather than first drafts, however, plenty of writers write their first drafts longhand as well – Stephen King has done it, JK Rowling has done it, and Ernest Hemingway scared the life out of me with this one: “I write description in longhand because that’s hardest for me and you’re closer to the paper when you work by hand, but I use the typewriter for dialogue because people speak like a typewriter works.”

I know you’ll be completely surprised that the pen company Bic made a series of commercials saying that handwriting increased creativity, made for better critical thinking, boosted self-confidence, and provided a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess. I mean, why would a pen company want to publicize the benefits of handwriting? I know. It had me puzzled as well.

Were these claims true? Kind of. The only one with any scientific backing is the last one – handwriting fires up the same brain receptors as reading, so if you improve your writing, there is a good chance that you will also improve your reading.  However saying “Handwriting increases creativity” is impossible to quantify – what is your basis for creativity? Similarly, critical thinking and self-confidence were more likely to come from academic confidence than writing ability.

Bottom Line.

I believe there is some kind of correlation between handwriting and creativity. Loads of other people do as well. And just because science hasn’t exactly figured out how to quantify it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right?

Squee!! Color pens for all!!
Squee!! Color pens for all!!

So, if handwriting works for you, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t do it. As for me, I will continue to pick up my favorite pen of any or many colors and that blank notebook whenever the urge hits. Because, well, I’m a creative, damn it, and creative people do weird things, okay? Also, stationery fetish. What can I say…

What about you? Do you prefer to hand write your first draft? Or review with paper and pencil? What works for you?


Pen vs Keyboard – Brain Wars (or what happens in your brain when you write by hand)

2 thoughts on “Pen vs Keyboard – Brain Wars (or what happens in your brain when you write by hand)

  1. Hi Bree. Loved this article. Have just started drafting by hand after inheriting a delightful gold tipped fountain pen. Then I got myself another. And another. They each feel different and I expect will eventually be assigned to different tasks or even genres!
    I feel so connected to the story as I write, scribble, draw connecting lines and add notes to follow up. It allows me to write my story quickly, not seeking clever combinations, but simply allowing my thoughts and ideas to flow onto the paper and keep moving forward. I am now getting good at writing to a target instead of reading articles about writing when I turn on my laptop.

    Alas I have to confess that I’m sizing up for an ink addiction also. There are so many lovely colours to choose. Hmmm. Perhaps I shall have a pen for every ink colour. Nice!

    1. Hi Jay
      I used to own a calligraphy set, and loved writing with a proper ink pen. But I have to say, these days, packages of pens with ten different colours are what does it for me… I just don’t seem to be able to pass them by!!

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