In the modern world, our education systems have steadily moved away from teaching the skill of handwriting because so much of adult communication and work product is handled by computer. When I went to college, there were a handful of laptop note takers. At a recent conference I went to, however, paper notebooks were in the clear minority.
Neuroscience now shows that children who first learn to write through typing might be missing something. Studies have picked up on a connection between handwriting and reading comprehension, information retention and creativity.
Karin James, a neuroscientist at Indiana University has shown in brain scans that children writing out letters rather than tracing or typing that same letters show a particular brain activation pattern in a circuit between the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex that the others don’t.
Handwritten note taking has also been shown to help us retain information better than typing on the computer. Some scientists think this is because it forces us to consolidate information as we listen in order to write down the crucial bits, whereas we can type quickly enough to record the information verbatim with no need to process in real time.
“With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important,” Yale psychologist Paul Bloom said. He added, after pausing to consider, “Maybe it helps you think better.”
The physiological based findings beg the question, have humans evolved to write?
It was long thought that evolution could not have an effect on us in the relatively recent time scale in which we learned to write, roughly the last 6,000 to 8,000 years, depending on how formal you need a system to be before considering it writing.
But we know now, that’s just not true. Evolution continues to happen in modern human populations just as it did to our quadruped primate ancestors. In fact there may be some evidence it’s happening faster.
Stroke patients who have lost their ability to read, but can still write, and vice versa, also show us that specialized physiological structures in the brain are responsible for the activities as documented by Oliver Sacks and other neurologists. The structures are so different, in fact, that one can remain totally intact while the other is destroyed.
Although it’s yet to be proven, there is no reason to think that population selection hasn’t favored humans who were better at communicating via writing, especially when we consider that writing helps us learn and retain new information.
- The evolution of writing, Micael Gross, Current Biology
- From contemporary syntax to human language’s deep origins, Peter Dizikes, MIT News
- What’s lost as handwriting fades, Maria Konnikova, New York Times