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The Power of Writing It Down


Long-time readers of my blog know that I'm an inveterate user and admirer of technology. I'm consistently drawn to its possibilities and have benefited tremendously from all that technology offers to us. But, during my recent social media sabbatical, I was reminded again of some of the more old-fashioned strategies for learning that served me well in the past. One of them was the power of physical writing, as opposed to typing information. 

In college, I studied by reading through my class notes and texts and taking additional copious notes on what I read. When test time rolled around, I was usually able to recall where on the page I'd written the relevant material and could call it up when I needed to.

During my social media diet, I returned to writing things down, rather than typing them in a Google doc and re-discovered the pleasures of putting pen to page. In particular, I started hand-writing goals and plans, rather than typing them, and noticed immediately that they somehow stayed with me longer than when I used my laptop to record my thoughts.

This Lifehacker article explains why:

Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called thereticular 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."

And then this:

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.

So the act of forming the letters engages and rewires our brains in a way that typing doesn't. It helps embed the information and leads us to greater action. 

What about you? Do you notice a difference when you write information down, as opposed to what happens when you type it? Is this something where you've even noticed a difference? 



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Completely agree with handwriting engaging the brain. Taking notes by hand allows me to visually link points raised at different stages of a meeting as it progresses which, in turn, represents the structure of ideas. Try that with a keyboard! In fact, for any type of creative task, my first draft is handwritten, since it's only handwriting that can keep up with the flow of thought. But the screen is invaluable for kicking things into their final form efficiently. Another thing about handwriting is that it guarantees confidentiality - mine does, at any rate, since no one else appears to be able to read it.

Yes!! I definitely notice somehow being more engaged when using pen & paper versus a digital tool. I especially like using pen & paper (or chalk/whiteboard, etc)for creative tasks like initial brainstorming, sketching rough storyboards, communicating ideas in meetings (better than prepared PPT), etc. Unfortunately my handwriting is terrible, so I defer to computers when rapid or heavy note taking is necessary :-).

Well, I agree to the most part. I'm feeling though that if I use the coumputer/keyboard to actually summarize and "work on" what I've just read or heard my brain/mind/neurons get to work a bit more than if you just retype something out of a book.
On the other hand, not mentioned above, is the fact that keyboard typing is so fast that you actually bypass your consciousness sometimes and you yourself become the "first reader" of your text. This is extremely powerful and cannot be achieved with a pen and paper!

Hmm--good point that when you get going with typing (assuming you're a good typist), you can overcome your "first reader." Although I've also found that it makes it easier for me to get rid of what I wrote though. That "delete" key! :-)

I absolutely agree that writing something down enhances my ability to recall it. I use a combination of hand-written and typed notes for speech preparation. I always hand write subheads or triggers for transitions on the typed speech notes to help me segue from one topic or point to the next, and I use typed notes for facts and statistics that I want to be able to cite with accuracy. Enhancing the typed speaker notes with handwritten cues is critical to my recall and presenting in a more natural style.

On a completely different note...As a singer/soloist, I use pen and paper to learn and memorize song lyrics. If I write the lyrics out separately to learn a song and not just read them off the sheet music, I am able to have it memorized sooner and can recall the order of stanzas and any lyrical variations better than through repetition alone. I truly believe it also helps me to fully understand and interpet the song writer's meaning if I write out the lyrics before performing it.

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