The act of writing helps you clarify your thoughts, remember things better, and reach your goals more surely. Here’s a look at the science and psychology behind writing, and why the pen may be mightier than the keyboard.
Many productivity experts and writers have long espoused the power of writing things down (in fact, paper is one of our favourite to-do list manager and we’re a little fanatical about our favourite pens).
Why Writing Works
Patrick E. McLean’s defence of writing longhand is a poetic dissertation on the subject; words can rush out in their raw, feral state when the pen is your tool. Technology, meanwhile, can be too distracting and distancing.
Maybe you’re on the other side of the fence, though, and think all this just a lot of pure romanticism: People may feel more comfortable and productive with pen and paper because that’s what they’ve used most of their lives (and what we as a species have used for centuries), but some like typing more and can do it more quickly. Certainly, more of us are becoming fast typists by necessity and the art of handwriting is deteriorating.
A couple of studies, though, substantiate why the physical act of writing really does boost learning and goal achievement. Hoping to provide actual scientific proof on the efficacy of writing down and sharing goals (to make up for an often-quoted mythical Harvard/Yale study of goals), a psych professor at Dominican University of California found that people who wrote down their goals, shared them with others, and maintained accountability for their goals were 33 per cent more likely to achieve them, versus those who just formulated goals. (One can argue that in this instance, typing would be equally effective; see “Why Writing Works Better Than Typing” below for why writing still may be better.) Another study found positive effects of writing on learning foreign words, and a survey of note-taking studies found several examples where taking notes helped students with recall and academic performance.
The research results may seem common sense or obvious to many of us. If you’re interested in the biology behind writing’s effect on our achievements, though, here’s a little background: Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on at the moment — something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront. In Write It Down, Make It Happen, author Henriette Anne Klauser says that “Writing triggers the RAS, which in turn sends a signal to the cerebral cortex: ‘Wake up! Pay attention! Don’t miss this detail!’ Once you write down a goal, your brain will be working overtime to see you get it, and will alert you to the signs and signals that […]were there all along.”
Why Writing Works Better Than Typing
There may also be a scientific basis for the pen’s superiority over the keyboard when it comes to writing development and cognitive functions. Dr Virginia Berniger, who studies reading and writing systems and their relationship to learning processes, found that children’s writing ability was consistently better (they wrote more, faster, and more complete sentences) when they used a pen rather than a keyboard; these are, of course, subjects without a penchant for using either tool. We also previously covered the WSJ article that connected handwriting and cognitive abilities; in one of the studies cited, adults learned new symbols and graphic shapes better when they reproduced them with pen-and-paper instead of typing them.
The difference, Berniger notes, may lie in the fact that with writing, you use your hand to form the letters (and connect them), thereby more actively engaging the brain in the process. Typing, on the other hand, involves just selecting letters by pressing identical-looking keys.
Of course, whether the pen or the keyboard is better for you depends on your personal experience and comfort with these tools. As a compromise, perhaps we should all get stylus-friendly tablet PCs or digital pens.