Our exponentially evolving modern technology is making handwriting increasingly scarce and seemingly obsolete. We’ve gone from manual typewriters to being able to type up blogs on mobile phones while jogging. It’s no surprise that typed documents are becoming more prevalent. Physical writing is becoming less practical than typing or texting and from school reports to resumes and office memos, most official business and scholastic documents are now required to be typed up. But is typing or texting healthier than handwriting?
Typing is Physically Healthier than Writing
A widely believed stereotype is that people who perform heavy daily typing, such as secretaries or computer programmers, are at high risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by a spectrum of symptoms, ranging from tingling and numbness to weakness and varying degrees of loss of function in the hands and fingers. It’s caused by forceful, repetitive activities — for example operating a deli slicer.
However, while typing and texting require repetitive actions, they are not forceful, and therefore don’t cause carpal tunnel syndrome. A study showed that only 5 percent of more than 5,000 technical assistants, who type for 25 hours each week, could be diagnosed with the condition. So, good news — you can type up to five novels or a thousand blogs in a short period of time and not worry about suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.
Physical writing, however, has been correlated with causing focal hand dystonia. According to the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Integrative Neuroscience, focal hand dystonia aka writer’s cramp “is generally seen in persons who have spent much time writing.” A debilitating disease, it consists of episodes of excessive muscle spasms in the writing hand. Their severity ranges from mild pain and slight convulsions when writing, to painful spasms so severe they lock the writing hand in an awkward position for varying periods of time.
The good news is, unlike carpal tunnel syndrome, which affects most hand movements; writer’s cramp seems to be task-specific and is triggered mostly when writing. However, a minority of writer’s cramp sufferers do experience episodes when performing other hand-related tasks. Also, the UCSF study suggests that not all writing activities trigger writer’s cramp episodes, only the most frequent writing positions. For example, writer’s cramp is rarely triggered by writing on a blackboard writing forward, but is more likely to occur if the sufferer usually writes on a table writing downward.
Writing is Cognitively Better than Typing
Although typing and texting are faster and easier than handwriting, it turns out you gain more long-term cognitive benefits by physically writing documents. In 2014, the Association for Psychological Science published a study in which college students, all attending the same lecture, were tested on the lecture material 30 minutes later. The students who typed their notes scored lower than those who hand wrote them. The experiment was repeated, except the students were given a week to study their lecture notes. The results were the same: those who took handwritten notes scored higher.
What’s so special about physically writing something down that it seems to stick better than when typing it out? A similar study, published by Intech, found that writing something down imprints the links of letters and words in your brain via motor memory. This facilitates recognition of words and sentences later on, like the students recognizing key words and sentences during the tests.
Conversely, since keyboard buttons are almost ubiquitous, nearly every letter typed feels the same, making motor memory imprinting more difficult. Thus, researchers posit that overall, physical writing facilitates learning and memorization, whereas typing might actually impair it. One study involving children learning the alphabet supports this conclusion. The children, who were from 3 to 5 years old, were separated into two groups: one group typed the alphabet, and the other physically wrote it down. The handwriting group excelled more at recognizing letters than the typing group. Next, the researchers performed the experiment on adults, making them learn Bengali or Tamil characters. The results were the same — the writing group performed better.
The Future of Writing
Writing helps the brain fine tune complex motor skills — receiving feedback from the physical actions as the hand deftly glides along the page or, in the case of children, learns to do this. These movements are stored in the sensorimotor part of the brain — embedding the information deeper, making memories stronger, and therefore facilitating learning while also improving visual pattern recognition and recall.
The complex processes of handwriting require the coordination of many adaptive skills and different regions of the brain. Stimulating and ‘exercising’ these regions helps develop skills in idea composition and expression. Learning foreign languages or using different scripts also requires systemic relearning of letter shapes, which has been proven to be much easier when done by hand.
Revealing Word Art
We all develop our unique style of writing, which graphologists believe can reveal facets of our personality. From letter size to spacing, your writing can reveal more than you realize about the hidden depths of your mind — even the location of dots over letters can reveal visionary or procrastinatory habits. Meanwhile, a study of doctors’ handwriting found that the myth of illegibility was outweighed by being male and of executive status, which affected the legibility much more negatively.
Calligraphy is the epitome of hand crafted word art and traditionally religious texts, including the Qur’an, incorporate this beautiful art as an almost graphical illustration of the meaning, conveying more than simply typed letters could. We can see the depth with which writing penetrates our brain by the frequency with which it is used in advertising and the love with which we hand craft our own unique stamp in our signature. It is sad to think this unique expression of art in literature could be lost in a single generation of texters and tappers — even if they are quicker.
The Final Word
If you’re taking notes on something you want to learn or memorize, physically writing things down helps you integrate and understand the material faster. If you are trying to express a new idea or concept forming in your mind, you may find it easier to grab a pen and piece of paper. But if your only concern is speed and no cognition is required, for example performing data entry, type it — it’s easier, quicker and more efficient.
In our fast paced society it seems such a shame to lose the unique beauty of our individual expressions of the written word to the demands of speed. Long may we continue to learn and express our individual linguistic creativity in the memorable art of handwriting.References