A celebration of writing by hand and why we must retain this ancient artform

Did you know that Saturday 23 January is National Handwriting Day in the US? Spurred on by Danny Gregory’s ridiculously inspiring blog, I decided that this week was the week to pen (or, ironically, type?) a celebration of writing by hand.

John Steinbeck took great care when choosing his writing implement, and upon finding one that thoroughly charmed him, wrote ‘Oh! Lord, how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it.’ Writer Mary Gordon also praises the benefits of this physical experience: ‘Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality.’

Danny Gregory

But really, what’s the big deal, whether we write by hand or type on to a keyboard? After all, we all remember, don’t we, those hours sitting in an exam hall scribing page after page whilst our fingers and hands increasingly ached? There is so much to be thankful for that we are now able to type on to a keyboard – not only does it save time but it has numerous helpful word processing features that do, frankly, make our lives alot easier, right? Absolutely. Typing is here to stay, and I’m glad about that. But consider this:

As the art of handwriting fades in its scope and reach, (many children now skip this altogether and go straight to the keyboard), is it possible that this is impacting on cognitive benefits? Ever since writing was thought to have developed, in far off 4000 BC Mesopotamia, it has been through plenty of major upheavals, one of the greatest ones being the invention of printing in the 15th Century. But nueroscientists and psychologists are urging us to reconsider switching pen so conclusively for keyboard, saying it’s not simply what we write but how we write it.

Michael Mabry

In free-form handwriting, a child attempting to learn and form a letter for the first time will produce a variable outcome that is often messy and never exactly ‘right’. By mastering the same letter on the keyboard, there is only a single, correct outcome. So what does this mean and why does it matter? Stanislaus Dehaene, a French psychologist says ‘When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in the brain. And it seems this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realise. It is making learning easier.’ The process of duplication of letters on paper, in particular cursive, has far greater impact on the three important parts of the brain than when typing, as a number of scientific findings have shown (eg Click here to read a 2012 study).

For children, as in anything, it’s imperative that they are given the space to ‘fail’, to produce imperfect work in order to keep improving. But what does all this mean for adults (who, in our studying and working lives, use keyboards far more than pens)? A number of studies have been undertaken whereby  students who take notes at lectures by hand have been found to have a deeper level of processing, reframing and therefore cognitive encoding and understanding of the material.

As a race, we need to think of ways to stay sharp and alert, particularly with dementia on the rise. A test was done by a couple of Norweigan researchers whereby a group of adults were given a new alphabet to learn with twenty letters in it. Half of the group revised the new letters by hand whilst the other half practised them on the keyboard. After a six week period, the level of retention was far greater from the first group. Many tests have also shown that adults who habitually write by hand, particularly the baby boomer generation, are exercising that crucial part of the brain that needs to stay active.

Still unconvinced? Well, are there many more beautiful things to receive in life than this?

Okay, okay, I know they don’t even look like this anymore. But call me a diehard romantic 😉

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