The tools we use affect how we process and perceive the world.

Technology can be wonderful. Digital media makes learning resources more accessible, communication faster, and typesetting so much easier. All its positives, however, do not mean there is an opportunity cost in letting machines do much of the work for us. Nicholas Carr’s 2010 Pulitzer-nominated The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain paints a frightening picture of how we have adapted over the past few decades to process more information, faster at the expense of concentration and focus.

A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology sheds light on the long-term implications of the adoption of typesetting in favour of handwriting. Norwegian researchers used a high-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG) to monitor brain electrical activity in both adults and children while typing and handwriting. The latter produces more synchronous activity in the parts of the brain most associated with learning and memory.

Whenever self-generated movements are included as a learning strategy, more of the brain gets stimulated, which results in the formation of more complex neural networks (Van der Meer and Van der Weel, 2017). It also appears that the movements related to keyboard typing do not activate these networks the same way that drawing and handwriting do. Besides, when a child produces individual handwritten letters, the results will be highly variable, leading to a better understanding (Li and James, 2016James, 2017). The simultaneous spatiotemporal pattern from vision, motor commands, and kinesthetic feedback provided through fine hand movements, is not apparent in typewriting, where only a single button press is required to produce the complete desired form (Longcamp et al., 2006James, 2010Vinci-Booher et al., 2016). … The present findings suggest that the delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain’s activation patterns related to learning. We found no evidence of such activation patterns when using a keyboard.

This insight can easily be integrated into everyday learning and memory strategies. Try writing out to-do lists more frequently and taking notes on paper to both remember better and make bigger connections!