There’s nothing like the subtle weight of a pen in your hand, hovering just above the paper, waiting to bring your thoughts into the real world. Whether you’re an accomplished calligrapher or make do with barely legible handwriting (like me), there’s something satisfying about scribbling down a to-do list or penning a note in a birthday card. Now, we have the science to back up our love of pens: several studies have now found that writing by hand can actually improve our mental and physical health.
Taking Notes by Hand Improves Comprehension
Three studies published by the Journal of Psychological Science followed student performance after taking notes during a lecture. Students who used laptops to take notes (even laptops on which all other applications and internet had been disabled, to prevent “multitasking’) consistently performed worse on conceptual questions compared to students who took notes longhand.
When looking at the notes the students took, the study found that the laptop note takers’ tended to transcribe lectures verbatim, rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words or shorthand, as the students using pen and paper had to do. The conclusion of the study was that laptop note taking impared learning as it required “shallower processing,” or brain power, compared to manual notes. To the same point, students writing by hand were naturally slower, and so were continuously forced to decide which information was most important to remember
Writing Before Bed Helps You Sleep
Have trouble falling asleep? Try writing before bed! A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology monitored the sleep habits of young adults who were told to journal for five minutes before bed. Some of the participants were instructed to write about their day, while the others spent five minutes crafting a to-do list for the next day. They found that writing about the future, vs the past, helped people fall asleep an average of nine minutes faster — in about 16 minutes versus 25.
The study’s lead author, Michael Scullin, a psychological scientist and sleep researcher at Baylor University, shared his thoughts on the findings with Psychology Today:
“Throughout the day, we have all these things cycling through our head. Some of them seem to continue to cycle. There’s something about the act of writing — physically writing something on paper — that tends to offload it a little bit, or help us hit the pause button on it,” he said. “The outcome seems to be that you decrease cognitive arousal, and that you decrease rumination and worry. If you decrease those two things, it makes sense that you’re going to fall asleep faster, because having stuff on your mind is one of the main barriers to falling asleep at night.”
Handwriting Could Keep the Brain Fit
According to The Wall Street Journal, some physicians recommend handwriting for older individuals as an effective cognitive exercise for keeping their minds functioning well as they age. Writing essentially activates more parts of the brain than typing does, including the areas that govern regions like thinking, language and working memory.
In another study from the National Institutes of Health, older adults had their mental state tested and were then divided into two groups: one group took an eight-week calligraphy course, while a control group did not. After the course was completed, both groups had their mental state tested again, and the calligraphy group’s scores improved, specifically in the cognitive areas of orientation, attention, and calculation. The control group’s scores, sadly, declined.
As a result of the study, the researchers strongly recommended the handwriting practice be incorporated as part of routine programs in both community and residential care settings.
You don’t need to take a calligraphy course to reap these benefits. A quick trip to YouTube will reveal thousands of calligraphy video guides, and many practice books are out there to teach yourself. Just put the pen to paper, and help your brain!