I love reflecting on stories that seem to confirm my admittedly quirky personal preferences. It’s the egoist in me, I suppose.
One such quirk is that I don’t feel I am writing unless I actually put a pen to paper. Yes, I will use a word processor to put the final version in order, but there is something about seeing words on paper that enhances my composition skills — which, Lord knows, need all the enhancing they can get.
A report in the Wall Street Journal by Gwendolyn Bounds, “How Handwriting Boosts the Brain,” discusses some new research by cognitive scientists using MRI technology and other tools. There is rapidly growing evidence that teaching children handwriting helps them not just to learn letters and shapes and develop motor skills but also to improve their ability to compose and express their thoughts.
One study tested children in the second, fourth, and sixth grades and found that they wrote more quickly, using more vocabulary, and conveyed more ideas when writing by hand than when word processing their essays. Adults who learn new symbols (such as Chinese characters) by writing them by hand seem to master the recognition of these symbols more quickly. Some doctors now recommend handwriting for aging patients as a way to ward off dementia.
Prof. Virginia Berninger (an educational psychologist) notes that when writing by hand, people have to execute “sequential strokes” in forming letters, as opposed to selecting whole letters by pushing keys on a keyboard. In so doing they activate large areas of the brain associated with thinking, language, and working memory.
But there is bad news for me in this flurry of research. One ed psych researcher notes that “people judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting.” Beautifully scripted letters are presumed to convey beautiful thoughts. As someone who was unceremoniously ejected from parochial school by angry penguins for both bad handwriting and impiety (the two failings thought to reinforce each other, I suspect), I must confess that to this day my penmanship is virtually indecipherable.