When's the last time you wrote something using actual pen and paper?
If you're still scratching your head and trying to come up with an answer, you're not alone. One recent British survey of 2,000 adults found that one-in-three hadn't written anything out longhand in the last six months. I doubt the situation is much different over here on this side of the pond.
And for the most part that's fine. Typing is faster and easier, and in most situations the ideal way to capture your thoughts. But not always. A flurry of scientific research is beginning to build up a fascinating picture of exactly how good, old-fashioned writing affects our brains. It turns out picking up a pen can have outsized benefits in some situations.
1 You learn faster.
"New evidence suggests that the links between handwriting and broader educational development run deep," reports The New York Times. "Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information."
These findings aren't just of interest for parents. "Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say," notes the WSJ.
2 You recall more.
This is perhaps the most widely reported benefit of using old-fashioned pen and paper -- when it comes to taking notes, you'll recall more and understand more deeply if you opt for a pen over a laptop.
"New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information," explains Scientific American.
"Those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops."
3. You're more creative.
There's a reason many famous writers from Truman Capote to Susan Sontag to JK Rowling opt to write longhand. There's something about the feel of the pen on the paper and the pace of this mode of composition that boosts creativity, they insist. "I like the slowness of writing by hand," Capote said.
In addition, for many writers, typing -- and the ability to endlessly and easily revise that comes with it -- is just too anxiety producing. "There just seems to be a lot less second-guessing while writing longhand," writer Joe Hill believes, for instance. "A blank computer screen makes me want to throw up," English novelist Niven Govinden agrees. "A lined notebook is less judgmental."
Other sorts of creatives also enjoy the freedom of a blank page. "Paper allows much greater graphic freedom: you can write on either side, keep to set margins or not, superimpose lines or distort them. There is nothing to make you follow a set pattern. It has three dimensions too, so it can be folded, cut out, stapled or glued," points out Claire Bustarret, a specialist on codex manuscripts at the Maurice Halbwachs research center in Paris.
4. Your brain will stay sharp.
If handwriting is particularly valuable for kids just learning to read and write, it also has outsize benefits for those on the other end of the age scale. "Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age," reports the WSJ.
5. You'll be less distracted
It doesn't take a stack of neuroscience research to understand that there are less readily available distractions when you're staring at a blank notebook page than when you're seated at your computer and the entire internet is just a click away. Of course, you can always opt for one of the many distraction-blocking productivity tools out there. Or you could pick up a pen.
Plus, according to at least one expert, writing can help calm brains made jittery by constant connectivity. "Writing a calming sentence is a form of graphotherapy," Dr. Marc Seifer, a graphologist and author of The Definitive Book of Handwriting Analysis, told Mashable. "Jotting down a sentence like, 'I will be more peaceful' at least 20 times per day can actually have an impact, especially on those with attention deficit disorder. 'This actually calms the person down and retrains the brain,' Seifer says."