In Defense of Writing on Paper: It’s Good for Our Brains


by Lou Cohick

My dad got me my first journal when I was eight or nine. It was pink with purple polka dots and had a purple princess-like shoe coming out of the front cover. I had nightmares frequently, and he’d bought the journal for me so I could write my dreams down and talk about them later. This process kept up for two weeks at most before the dream journal evolved into a book in which I drew pictures and complained about my younger brother.

Though the journal went missing somewhere in between attics, the concept stuck with me throughout the rest of elementary and middle school. Students were required to write down each day’s homework assignments in their “agenda book,” and the act of writing something out ensured that I remembered exactly what assignments I had to complete later that evening. In some cases, I wouldn’t even have to open my agenda when I got home because the connection between what I’d written earlier and the context in which I wrote it was strong enough that I didn’t need reminding. The same was true when it came to studying. Even as the use of computers and the internet increased throughout my schooling, I was still required to take notes by hand in all of my high school classes, and I found that the more I wrote, the higher retention I had, even without looking through notes before a test. Overall, I’m just interested in knowing whether this notion is an actual thing, or whether we make it up because we are romantic and enjoy writing by hand.

As it turns out, science does support the idea that scribbling in my pink, princess-y looking journal at eight years old, or inking up the back of my hand with tentative half-schedules is beneficial to my memory. There is some validity to our need to write with a pen on paper rather than just surrendering to keyboards and screens, and it has to do with how our brains work.

An article from The University of Stavanger (in Norway) explains that “When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper.” In other words, writing by hand helps our brains make physical, spatial connections with whatever we’re writing down, making it easier to remember later. This is perhaps the very reason students are made to physically record their assignments and notes in class from such an early age and why some of us have continued with this tradition long after our school years and into our daily lives of smartphones and tablets.

While writing on a laptop or other device may be quicker and easier for sharing, writing with a pen or pencil makes us use certain mental processes that help us to understand and connect concepts and ideas. The Association for Psychological Science looked at note taking at the college level, comparing the retention of lectures in students who took notes via an electronic device versus taking notes on paper. They found that while college students using laptops took more notes than those who wrote on paper, the “mindless transcription” of the lecture negated any benefits of taking a large amount of notes in the first place. Students using laptops were able to record more material, but the information wasn’t as easily recalled or applied to other situations as it was for those students who took notes by hand.

Personally, I can count on one hand the number of times I brought my laptop to class to take notes. I have hand written notes from lectures, I kept a planner throughout, and I constantly have more immediate reminders written on my hand, a practice that’s certainly shared by my fellow writing students. Whether or not you subscribe to the science-y stuff, there is certainly something about the act of writing by hand that makes it much easier to recall information. At the root of it, I associate what I have written with that physical place, rather than the motion of typing or downloading it onto my laptop. This seems to be true for a lot of other writers I’ve learned.

So, there’s my answer. Not only is my affection for pen and paper sentimental and nostalgic, it seems also beneficial to my short and long term memory. I love my phone and laptop as much as the next dude, but I’m going to keep scribbling in the proverbial princess journal.

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