When I heard recently that the schools in my area are phasing out teaching handwriting, I have to admit to uttering a few expletives. Not because of the long hours I stood hunched over lined paper writing the alphabet or watching my kids grip their pencils and grit their teeth and do the same. But because as a writer, it just seems so wrong.
Turns out I have reason for concern. Recent studies have shown that handwriting does a lot more for us than make our parents and teachers proud. Writing on paper actually benefits us psychologically. The act of writing exercises our brains in ways that typing on the computer just can’t do.
Keyboarding Isn’t Better Than Cursive
Not surprisingly, the time spent in computer class keyboarding has surpassed cursive writing in recent years. But as Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives – Partnering for Real Learning relates, keyboarding is somewhat redundant for digital natives, who learn from a young age to type on their cellphones and computers. What they really need is to mark paper with pen or pencil.
According to research in the journal Developmental Science, if you really want to learn something, the best way is to write it out on paper. The study compared brain scans of kids learning to work on the computer with children penciling on paper. It found that the kids working with paper experienced enhanced brain function. And putting ink to paper activates a part of the brain that helps us focus and process information.
Several more studies have found how effective writing on paper is at stimulating and strengthening learning, including a landmark 2010 study headed by researcher Karin Harman James at Indiana University, which showed that the act of drawing letters bolsters learning.
Researcher Virginia Berninger found that handwriting differs from keyboarding in such a way that it taps various areas of the brain that a computer keyboard simply cannot access. (University of Washington)
Writing is just as good for adults, and it’s favored by some researchers as an excellent way to keep the mind working sharply, no matter your age. Like physical exercise conditions your body, writing on paper keeps you thinking and reasoning and reflecting, and that all leads to a healthy mind.
Consider the many ways pulling out real paper and a pencil can help you psychologically and otherwise.
Boosts Your Financial Goals
Many financially successful people, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, find that writing on a regular basis clarifies and refines their thoughts. If you have financial goals in mind, writing them down on paper will help inspire and empower you to reach them.
How many goals have you typed into a calendar reminder or a fancy To Do list, only to forget them the next week? Write it down, put a date on it, stick it somewhere you can see it. Having your goals in print, and in your own writing, greatly influences how likely it is that you’ll achieve them. This is because writing stimulates the Reticular Activating System (RAS), according to LifeHacker and Mental_floss.
“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 that moment — something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.”
Decreases Input Overload
Writing on the computer with distractions like social media and an infinite amount of websites can be overwhelming for an over-wired brain. When there’s no blinking cursor or chiming email inbox, and it’s just you and a blank sheet of paper, things slow down to a quiet crawl that allows you to take a deep breath and refine your thoughts.
Consider writing the old school form of unplugging. Step outside, take out a pen and notepad, and write down a list of, say, today’s goals. If you find it hard to concentrate, and your fingers are itching to check your phone or email, you need to make this a daily exercise!
Encourages and Inspires Creativity
It’s just your, your pen, and the paper. This creates a freeing experience that allows you to pour out your thoughts onto the blank canvas with no distractions or parameters or inhibitions getting in your way. No need to save the document and file it in a certain location, or even to have electricity. No need to write anything specific because your options are limitless.
Remember keeping a journal in grade school? Writing about your day, keeping secrets, drawing all over the pages? Be that kid again. Write by moonlight, candlelight or flashlight when the house is quiet. Or make writing in a job journal part of your morning routine, like so many successful entrepreneurs do. Doing so is bound to kick your imagination into high gear. Before you know it, you could find yourself writing the great American novel, or changing the way you think about life.
Of course, you might see a blank sheet of lined paper and panic. What do you write? What if you’ve nothing to say? There’s more to putting pen to paper than telling a story or penning your aspirations. Buy a “Wreck This Journal” and wreck it. Get a sketchbook and try drawing your thoughts, or glue in quotes or cut out articles that stick with you. Forget journaling altogether if you want to and write a daily list of ideas, however outlandish, just because.
Offers Inexpensive Therapy
On the BBC television show Sherlock, John Watson’s undoubtedly expensive therapist has him write a blog to help with his post traumatic stress disorder. We’re not suggesting creating a blog, but that therapist has the right idea. Reflective writing therapy, which entails describing in writing events from your life and adding your personal reflections, is used by mental health professionals to bring to light painful or life altering events that their patients have yet to explore. This opens patients up to self-discovery and allows them to acknowledge things that they may not be able to say out loud.
For the late playwright and novelist Graham Green, writing proved to be a powerful therapy. He suffered from bipolar disorder and shared his suffering in letters that were published after his death. (Source)
Emotional health experts suggest journaling when you’re feeling down or conflicted or even when you just want to reflect on the day. You might find that by doing so you come to resolutions and realizations that help you work through difficult situations, without the added cost of a therapist.
An excellent resource we’ve found on reflective writing is $1 Therapy by Chaundra McGill.
Makes You Thankful and Happy
Happy people tend to be thankful people. Writing down on paper what you’re grateful for on a regular basis is a great morale booster sure to make you happy. The more positive things you write down on paper, the happier you’ll feel and the more likely you’ll continue writing.
There’s a reason for this. By writing down what makes us happy, what we’re grateful for, and what we’ve achieved forces us to acknowledge the good things and how they make us feel.
It’s Just Plain Exciting!
Admit it. When you get a handwritten card or letter in the mail, you open it immediately and start reading. If you’re like most people and have dozens or even hundreds of emails coming at you every day, you most certainly don’t read every one of them. You probably don’t even read half.
There’s something to be said about receiving paper covered in handwriting. You have to consider the time the sender took to write the letter, and the time it’ll take you to read it. Maybe they wrote it over tea, and maybe you’ll read it on the subway. A quick text or call is nothing but an instance easily forgotten. But a real letter or postcard… That’s an experience.
And isn’t that what it’s all about? The experience of writing, of putting thoughts on paper to ponder and reflect on. The act of slowing down, unplugging, and focusing on nothing else but the page in front of you. Go on, it’s time to write!
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Julie Bawden-Davis is a widely published journalist specializing in personal finance and small business. She has written 10 books and more than 2,500 articles for a wide variety of national and international publications, including Parade.com, where she has a weekly column. In addition to contributing to SuperMoney, her work has appeared in publications such as American Express OPEN Forum, The Hartford and Forbes.