Why You Learn More Effectively by Writing Than Typing

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Melanie Pinola 1/21/11 1:00pm

Why You Learn More Effectively by Writing Than Typing

The act of writing helps you clarify your thoughts, remember things better, and to better reach your goals. Here's a look at the science and psychology behind writing, and why the pen may be mightier than the keyboard.

Why Writing Works

Some of us love using technology to write. Patrick E. McLean's defense of writing longhand is a poetic dissertation on the subject; words can rush out in their raw, feral state when the pen is your tool. Technology, meanwhile, can be too distracting and distancing.

Maybe you're on the other side of the fence, though, and think all this just a lot of pure romanticism: People may feel more comfortable and productive with pen and paper because that's what they've used most of their lives (and what we as a species have used for centuries), but some like typing more and can do it more quickly. Certainly, more of us are becoming fast typists by necessity and the art of handwriting is deteriorating.

A couple of studies, though, substantiate why the physical act of writing really does boost learning and goal achievement. Hoping to provide actual scientific proof on the efficacy of writing down and sharing goals (to make up for an often-quoted mythical Harvard/Yale study of goals), a psych professor at Dominican University of California found that those who wrote down their goals, shared them with others, and maintained accountability for their goals were 33% more likely to achieve them, versus those who just formulated goals. (One can argue that in this instance, typing would be equally effective; see "Why Writing Works Better Than Typing" below for why writing still may be better.) Another study found positive effects of writing on learning foreign words, and a survey of note-taking studies found several examples where taking notes helped students with recall and academic performance.

The research results may seem common sense or obvious to many of us. If you're interested in the biology behind writing's effect on our achievements, though, here's a little background: Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular 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."

Typing is certainly a lot more efficient, but discarding handwriting entirely might not be such a great idea. Picking up a pencil and a pad of paper to write out your ideas could aid your thought process and learning ability.

If not just for the level of focus you get from having nothing but a pad of paper in front of you, you might benefit from the actual act of writing by hand. The Wall Street Journal takes a look at how this is an important developmental skill for children, but how it also applies to adults looking to keep their minds active. The idea is that the actual act of writing out the letter takes a little more work in your brain than just typing the letters on a keyboard, and that extra work keeps your mind sharp.

Adults studying new symbols, such as Chinese characters, might enhance recognition by writing the characters by hand, researchers say. Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age. Studies suggest there's real value in learning and maintaining this ancient skill, even as we increasingly communicate electronically via keyboards big and small.

There may also be a scientific basis for the pen's superiority over the keyboard when it comes to writing development and cognitive functions. 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. 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.

Neuroscience For Kids

Do We Use Only 10% of Our Brains?

Let me state this very clearly:

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that we use only 10% of our brains.

Let's look at the possible origins of this "10% brain use" statement and the evidence that we use all of our brain.

Where Did the 10% Myth Begin?

The 10% statement may have been started with a misquote of Albert Einstein or the misinterpretation of the work of Pierre Flourens in the 1800s. It may have been William James who wrote in 1908: "We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources" (from The Energies of Men, p. 12).Perhaps it was the work of Karl Lashley in the 1920s and 1930s that started it. Lashley removed large areas of the cerebral cortex (part of the brain) in rats and found that these animals could still relearn specific tasks. We now know that destruction of even small areas of the human brain can have devastating effects on behavior. That is one reason why neurosurgeons (someone who operates on brains) must carefully map the brain before removing brain tissue during operations for epilepsy or brain tumors: they want to make sure that essential (necessary) areas of the brain are not damaged.

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Text of the ad reads: "You only use 11% of its potential. Ditto (the same, also). Now there's a way to get the most of both."
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Text of the ad reads: "It's been said that we use a mere 10% of our brain capacity (total amount available). If, however, you're flying **** from **** Airlines, you're using considerably more."

Why Does the Myth Continue?

Somehow, somewhere, someone started this myth and the popular media keep on repeating this false statement (see the figures). Soon, everyone believes the statement regardless of the evidence. I have not been able to track down the exact source of this myth, and I have never seen any scientific data to support it. According to the believers of this myth, if we used more of our brain, then we could perform super memory feats and have other fantastic mental abilities - maybe we could even move objects with a single thought. Again, I do not know of any data that would support any of this.

What Does it Mean to Use Only 10% of Your Brain?

What data were used to come up with the number - 10%? Does this mean that you would be just fine if 90% of your brain was removed? If the average human brain weighs 1,400 grams (about 3 lb) and 90% of it was removed, that would leave 140 grams (about 0.3 lb) of brain tissue. That's about the size of a sheep's brain. It is well known that damage to a relatively small area of the brain, such as that caused by a stroke, may cause devastating disabilities. Certain neurological (related to the brain) disorders, such as Parkinson's Disease, also affect only specific areas of the brain. The damage caused by these conditions is far less than damage to 90% of the brain.

Sheep Brain

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