Computer keyboards now dominate the way we convert thought into words. But reverting to traditional ink and paper, say experts, may have cognitive, as well as therapeutic, benefits
It’s unlikely those of us who complained of writer’s cramp after doing our Christmas cards would get much sympathy from Samuel Richardson. The author of Clarissa would have literally penned his masterpiece – 1,534 pages and almost a million words of feisty 18th-century high-society drama – using a goose quill and vellum.
But for obvious reasons, a century and a half after the invention of the typewriter, writing – not as in composing words, but the act of scoring the loops and ligatures of the alphabet onto cellulose pulp using an inky nib – has become an unfashionable enterprise. A recent survey of 2,000 British people found that one in three respondents hadn’t written anything by hand in the previous six months, while on average respondents hadn’t put pen to paper in 41 days.
Now, though, an emerging school of thought has it that writing with a pen engages the brain in a more profound way than typing does, elevating the thought process and allowing ideas to flow more freely. “Both my own personal experience… and the relevant evidence published in the scientific literature indicate that writing with pen and paper still plays a vital role in our modern technology-enhanced lives,” says Dr Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist, broadcaster and author of Sort Your Brain Out: Boost your performance, manage stress and achieve more.
“Compared to typing on a keyboard, writing by hand enables a more considered approach to sentence construction, a deeper grasp of concepts when used to take notes, and even accelerated learning,” he continues. “Over a dozen brain-imaging studies bear testimony to the fact that writing with pen in hand increases activity in a large territory of left frontal and parietal areas that are known to be important for focusing attention and keeping several pieces of information in mind simultaneously, in addition to complex linguistic processing. It seems that simply wielding a pen is sufficient to get your brain in gear for better thinking.”
Given he’s a former spokesman for Parker Pens, it’s perhaps not surprising Lewis is an advocate – but he’s not alone. Professor Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, studied children who had not yet learnt to read and write, getting them to draw, trace or type letters they were shown. They were re-shown the image, and their reactions monitored with a brain scanner.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging, aka functional MRI, which highlights greater oxygen consumption in more active parts of the brain, showed better character recognition among children who had reproduced the character freehand. “What we’re seeing is the brain coming online and responding to letters in a way that it will once the child learns how to read,” Professor James later told the BBC World Service.
So what are the implications for adults? The same principle would seem to apply to teaching older dogs new tricks. When a similar experiment with children carried out by Marieke Longchamp and Jean-Luc Velay, two researchers at the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Aix-Marseille University, echoed Professor James’s findings, the pair repeated the experiment on adults, but with Bengali or Tamil characters. The results were much the same as with the infants.
One man who wouldn’t be surprised is bestselling novelist Mohsin Hamid. The author of Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist believes computers are not just a learning impediment but a creative shackle. “When I spend a lot of my day inputting characters into a computer, I feel strongly after many hours of this that the technology is shaping and configuring me, I’m becoming a different person in how I express myself and think,” says Hamid, who types his fictional manuscripts but uses cursive handwriting whenever possible, including for all note-taking.
It’s certainly true, if we see considered expression as a target, that word processors encourage a scattergun approach that doesn’t bother to take aim before firing, and Hamid’s words have a chilling ring. “A future is opening up where there’s a human-machine fusion going on,” he adds. “Of course we invented those machines but they’re shaping us now.”
London-based calligrapher Paul Antonio even suggests that cursive writing offers an altered state of consciousness. “The difference between handwriting and typing on a computer is astronomical,” he says. “I’ve always felt that the structure inherent in rhythmic writing could reach into people’s psyche, feelings, energy, and make them connect with themselves better, or alleviate emotional stress.”
Antonio, who has been doing calligraphy since he was nine and also practises Japanese reiki, adds that handwriting has effects in common with meditation. “The rhythm of the movement, the action of the pen, the sound of the nib against paper – it can all stimulate an autonomous sensory meridian response, like the sound of a waterfall does. It’s a sort of reset button that causes electrical impulses to fire between the hemispheres of the brain, then run down the spine.”
Whether or not you feel inclined to dust off the pens in your desk, there’s clearly more to the handwriting revival than misty-eyed nostalgia.
Different strokes – making the most of handwriting
Slow with the flow
Consider going even older-school than the ubiquitous biro: “When you write with a fountain pen, ink doesn’t flow readily, so you can’t write too quickly,” says calligrapher Paul Antonio, “and, by slowing down your writing, you also slow down your breathing and make it more rhythmic.”
Perfect your posture
We often huddle over paper like secretive exam candidates when writing, but a straight back, with heels flat and legs uncrossed, is most conducive to successful scribbling.
Riff with the nib
Scribbling randomly on a page is your equivalent of the golfer’s practice swings: it’ll hone your hand/eye co-ordination and is unfathomably relaxing.
Paul Antonio offers references and tips for first-time calligraphers here