Why writing by hand is better for remembering things

Want to remember something? Don’t type it out—write it down. 

At least that’s what a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests, concluding that “whenever handwriting movements are included as a learning strategy, more of the brain gets stimulated, resulting in the formation of more complex neural network connectivity.” In other words: Writing by hand, as opposed to with a keyboard, helps you remember things. 

The study, by F. R. Van der Weel and Audrey L. H. Van der Meer, psychology researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, had 36 students write a variety of words, chosen at random from the game Pictionary, either with a digital stylus or a keyboard, all while wearing a 256-channel sensor array on their heads. The researchers were watching to determine which involved more connectivity between the two sides of the brain, something that’s been shown to correlate with learning and memory. Though a small sample size, the results “revealed increased connectivity for handwriting over typewriting, suggesting that different underlying cognitive processes are involved in the two tasks.” 

This makes sense to me—I can type without looking at the keyboard, or even really thinking about the fact that I’m typing. Writing with a pen, though? That I have to pay attention. That’s a meaningful distinction, one that has implications for anyone who is trying to learn. Now, the paper goes out of its way to state that this doesn’t mean you should abandon your keyboard altogether—they’re just different tools for different jobs. 

There is, all the same, a demonstrable difference between how writing with a pen, or typing by hand, affects your ability to remember the words you’re recording. Now that you know this you can take advantage—here’s a little bit of advice. 

Want to remember something? Use a pen or stylus.

Lately, when I’m reading a book or paper with the intention of learning from it, I take notes by writing. In my case I’m using a Remarkable e-ink tablet but there’s no reason a sheet of paper, a notebook, a digital notebook, or even an iPad with a pencil can’t work the same way. 

Remember: The study above involved a tablet and stylus, meaning that it’s the movement of writing by hand—not the lack of screens—that helps with memory. So, if the point of writing something down is to help you remember, take those notes using handwriting. The most obvious use case for this is taking notes during class. But it applies even if you’re not a student. 

Take paper notes during meetings

Do you attend meetings regularly? Consider leaving your laptop in your bag and taking notes by hand. You might not be able to write things down as quickly, granted, but you’ll remember the key points from the meeting with more clarity. As a bonus, it’s a lot easier to maintain eye contact when you’re not constantly looking down at your computer. 

I find this even works during online meetings. I leave my tablet between my computer and me, which allows me to jot things down during the conversation. This doesn’t just help me remember things; I’m also not interrupting the conversation with my infamously loud typing sounds. Win-win. 

Consider using paper productivity software

I’m straying pretty far from the research here, granted, but if writing things down instead of typing helps with memory you might want to consider replacing your productivity software with pen and paper, or a digital system that allows you to handwrite. I especially recommend this if you’re the kind of person who frequently sets up to-do lists and calendar apps only to forget that they exist. Writing things down might help you remember in a way that apps just don’t. 

Need to be quick? Use a keyboard.

The study went out of its way to say that keyboards have their place. To quote the conclusion:

Handwriting requires fine motor control over the fingers, and it forces students to pay attention to what they are doing. Typing, on the other hand, requires mechanical and repetitive movements that trade awareness for speed. 

There is a time and a place for keyboards: I’m typing this right now. The takeaway isn’t that writing is better, per se, just that the act itself can help you remember things. Keep this in mind and try out writing at times when you normally wouldn’t. You might be surprised.

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