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Why Writing by Hand Is Better for Memory and Learning

Engaging the fine motor system to produce letters by hand has positive effects on learning and memory

Child laying on his bed writing.

Studies continue to show pluses to writing by hand.

Image Source/Getty Images


Handwriting notes in class might seem like an anachronism as smartphones and other digital technology subsume every aspect of learning across schools and universities. But a steady stream of research continues to suggest that taking notes the traditional way—with pen and paper or even stylus and tablet—is still the best way to learn, especially for young children. And now scientists are finally zeroing in on why.

A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology monitored brain activity in students taking notes and found that those writing by hand had higher levels of electrical activity across a wide range of interconnected brain regions responsible for movement, vision, sensory processing and memory. The findings add to a growing body of evidence that has many experts speaking up about the importance of teaching children to handwrite words and draw pictures.
最近,《心理学前沿》(Frontiers in Psychology)杂志上的一项研究对做笔记的学生的大脑活动进行了监测,结果发现,那些手写的学生在负责运动、视觉、感官处理和记忆的一系列相互关联的大脑区域中的电活动水平更高。这些研究结果为越来越多的证据提供了依据,许多专家都在谈论教孩子们手写文字和画图的重要性。

Differences in Brain Activity

The new research, by Audrey van der Meer and Ruud van der Weel at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), builds on a foundational 2014 study. That work suggested that people taking notes by computer were typing without thinking, says van der Meer, a professor of neuropsychology at NTNU. “It’s very tempting to type down everything that the lecturer is saying,” she says. “It kind of goes in through your ears and comes out through your fingertips, but you don’t process the incoming information.” But when taking notes by hand, it’s often impossible to write everything down; students have to actively pay attention to the incoming information and process it—prioritize it, consolidate it and try to relate it to things they’ve learned before. This conscious action of building onto existing knowledge can make it easier to stay engaged and grasp new concepts.
这项新研究由挪威科技大学(NTNU)的奥德丽-范德米尔(Audrey van der Meer)和鲁德-范德韦尔(Ruud van der Weel)在2014年一项奠基性研究的基础上开展。挪威科技大学神经心理学教授范德米尔说,这项研究表明,用电脑做笔记的人在打字时不假思索。"她说:"把讲师讲的所有内容都打下来是很有诱惑力的。"它就像从你的耳朵里进去,再从你的指尖出来,但你并没有对传入的信息进行处理"。但在手记笔记时,往往不可能把所有东西都写下来;学生必须积极关注接收到的信息,并对其进行处理--分清主次,加以巩固,并尝试将其与以前学过的东西联系起来。这种有意识地在已有知识的基础上进行复习的做法,可以使学生更容易投入学习并掌握新的概念。

To understand specific brain activity differences during the two note-taking approaches, the NTNU researchers tweaked the 2014 study’s basic setup. They sewed electrodes into a hairnet with 256 sensors that recorded the brain activity of 36 students as they wrote or typed 15 words from the game Pictionary that were displayed on a screen.

When students wrote the words by hand, the sensors picked up widespread connectivity across many brain regions. Typing, however, led to minimal activity, if any, in the same areas. Handwriting activated connection patterns spanning visual regions, regions that receive and process sensory information and the motor cortex. The latter handles body movement and sensorimotor integration, which helps the brain use environmental inputs to inform a person’s next action.

“When you are typing, the same simple movement of your fingers is involved in producing every letter, whereas when you’re writing by hand, you immediately feel that the bodily feeling of producing A is entirely different from producing a B,” van der Meer says. She notes that children who have learned to read and write by tapping on a digital tablet “often have difficulty distinguishing letters that look a lot like each other or that are mirror images of each other, like the b and the d.”
"范德梅尔说:"当你打字时,你手指的简单移动就能写出每个字母,而当你手写时,你会立即感觉到写出 A 和写出 B 的身体感觉完全不同。她指出,那些通过敲击数字平板电脑来学习读写的儿童 "通常很难分辨出那些看起来很像或互为镜像的字母,比如 b 和 d"。

Reinforcing Memory and Learning Pathways

Sophia Vinci-Booher, an assistant professor of educational neuroscience at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the new study, says its findings are exciting and consistent with past research. “You can see that in tasks that really lock the motor and sensory systems together, such as in handwriting, there’s this really clear tie between this motor action being accomplished and the visual and conceptual recognition being created,” she says. “As you’re drawing a letter or writing a word, you’re taking this perceptual understanding of something and using your motor system to create it.” That creation is then fed back into the visual system, where it’s processed again—strengthening the connection between an action and the images or words associated with it. It’s similar to imagining something and then creating it: when you materialize something from your imagination (by writing it, drawing it or building it), this reinforces the imagined concept and helps it stick in your memory.
范德堡大学教育神经科学助理教授索菲亚-文奇-布赫(Sophia Vinci-Booher)没有参与这项新研究,她说,研究结果令人兴奋,而且与过去的研究一致。"她说:"你可以看到,在真正将运动系统和感官系统锁定在一起的任务中,例如手写,在运动动作的完成与视觉和概念识别的产生之间存在着非常明显的联系。"她说:"当你在画一个字母或写一个单词时,你是在利用对事物的感性认识,并利用运动系统来创造它。这种创造随后会反馈到视觉系统,在那里再次进行处理--加强动作与相关图像或文字之间的联系。这就类似于想象一些东西,然后创造出来:当你把想象中的东西具体化时(通过写出来、画出来或建造出来),这就强化了想象中的概念,并帮助它在你的记忆中留下深刻印象。

The phenomenon of boosting memory by producing something tangible has been well studied. Previous research has found that when people are asked to write, draw or act out a word that they’re reading, they have to focus more on what they’re doing with the received information. Transferring verbal information to a different form, such as a written format, also involves activating motor programs in the brain to create a specific sequence of hand motions, explains Yadurshana Sivashankar, a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario who studies movement and memory. But handwriting requires more of the brain’s motor programs than typing. “When you’re writing the word ‘the,’ the actual movements of the hand relate to the structures of the word to some extent,” says Sivashankar, who was not involved in the new study.
通过制作有形的东西来增强记忆的现象已经得到了充分的研究。以前的研究发现,当人们被要求写出、画出或表演出他们正在阅读的单词时,他们必须更加专注于他们正在做的事情。安大略省滑铁卢大学研究运动和记忆的认知神经科学研究生亚杜莎娜-西瓦珊卡(Yadurshana Sivashankar)解释说,将语言信息转换成不同的形式,比如书面形式,也需要激活大脑中的运动程序,以创造特定的手部动作序列。但与打字相比,手写需要更多的大脑运动程序。"西瓦桑卡尔说:"当你书写'the'这个单词时,手的实际动作在某种程度上与单词的结构有关。

For example, participants in a 2021 study by Sivashankar memorized a list of action verbs more accurately if they performed the corresponding action than if they performed an unrelated action or none at all. “Drawing information and enacting information is helpful because you have to think about information and you have to produce something that’s meaningful,” she says. And by transforming the information, you pave and deepen these interconnections across the brain’s vast neural networks, making it “much easier to access that information.”
例如,在西瓦尚卡尔于2021年进行的一项研究中,如果参与者做了相应的动作,那么他们记忆动作动词列表的准确率要高于做无关动作或不做任何动作的人。"她说:"汲取信息和制定信息很有帮助,因为你必须思考信息,必须做出有意义的事情。通过转换信息,你可以在大脑庞大的神经网络中铺设并加深这些相互联系,从而 "更容易获取这些信息"。

The Importance of Handwriting Lessons for Kids

Across many contexts, studies have shown that kids appear to learn better when they’re asked to produce letters or other visual items using their fingers and hands in a coordinated way—one that can’t be replicated by clicking a mouse or tapping buttons on a screen or keyboard. Vinci-Booher’s research has also found that the action of handwriting appears to engage different brain regions at different levels than other standard learning experiences, such as reading or observing. Her work has also shown that handwriting improves letter recognition in preschool children, and the effects of learning through writing “last longer than other learning experiences that might engage attention at a similar level,” Vinci-Booher says. Additionally, she thinks it’s possible that engaging the motor system is how children learn how to break “mirror invariance” (registering mirror images as identical) and begin to decipher things such as the difference between the lowercase b and p.
研究表明,在许多情况下,当孩子们被要求用手指和手掌以协调的方式写出字母或其他视觉项目时,他们的学习效果会更好--这是点击鼠标或敲击屏幕或键盘上的按钮所无法复制的。文奇-布赫的研究还发现,与阅读或观察等其他标准学习体验相比,手写的动作似乎在不同程度上调动了不同的大脑区域。Vinci-Booher说,她的研究还表明,手写能提高学龄前儿童对字母的识别能力,而且通过书写进行学习的效果 "比其他可能在类似水平上吸引注意力的学习经历更持久"。Vinci-Booher说:"此外,她认为,让运动系统参与可能是儿童学习如何打破 "镜像不变性"(将镜像记录为相同的图像)并开始破译诸如小写字母b和p之间的区别的方法。

Vinci-Booher says the new study opens up bigger questions about the way we learn, such as how brain region connections change over time and when these connections are most important in learning. She and other experts say, however, that the new findings don’t mean technology is a disadvantage in the classroom. Laptops, smartphones and other such devices can be more efficient for writing essays or conducting research and can offer more equitable access to educational resources. Problems occur when people rely on technology too much, Sivashankar says. People are increasingly delegating thought processes to digital devices, an act called “cognitive offloading”—using smartphones to remember tasks, taking a photo instead of memorizing information or depending on a GPS to navigate. “It’s helpful, but we think the constant offloading means it’s less work for the brain,” Sivashankar says. “If we’re not actively using these areas, then they are going to deteriorate over time, whether it’s memory or motor skills.”
Vinci-Booher说,这项新研究为我们的学习方式提出了更大的问题,比如大脑区域的连接是如何随着时间的推移而变化的,以及这些连接在什么时候对学习最重要。不过,她和其他专家表示,新发现并不意味着技术在课堂上是劣势。笔记本电脑、智能手机和其他此类设备可以更有效地撰写论文或进行研究,并能更公平地获取教育资源。西瓦桑卡尔说,如果人们过于依赖技术,就会出现问题。人们越来越多地将思考过程委托给数字设备,这种行为被称为 "认知卸载"--使用智能手机来记忆任务,用拍照来代替记忆信息,或者依靠全球定位系统来导航。"西瓦桑卡尔说:"这很有帮助,但我们认为,不断卸载意味着大脑的工作量减少了。"如果我们不积极使用这些区域,那么随着时间的推移,它们就会退化,无论是记忆还是运动技能。

Van der Meer says some officials in Norway are inching toward implementing completely digital schools. She claims first grade teachers there have told her their incoming students barely know how to hold a pencil now—which suggests they weren’t coloring pictures or assembling puzzles in nursery school. Van der Meer says they’re missing out on opportunities that can help stimulate their growing brains.

“I think there’s a very strong case for engaging children in drawing and handwriting activities, especially in preschool and kindergarten when they’re first learning about letters,” Vinci-Booher says. “There’s something about engaging the fine motor system and production activities that really impacts learning.”

A version of this article entitled “Hands-on” was adapted for inclusion in the May 2024 issue of Scientific American.
本文题为 "Hands-on"(动手实践),经改编后刊登在《科学美国人》2024 年 5 月刊上。

Charlotte Hu is a science and technology journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's interested in stories at the intersection of science and society. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, GenomeWeb, Business Insider and Discover magazine.
CHARLOTTE HU 是驻纽约布鲁克林的一名科技记者。她的作品曾刊登在《大众科学》、GenomeWeb、《商业内幕》和《发现》杂志上。

More by Charlotte Hu Charlotte Hu 的更多作品
Scientific American Magazine Vol 330 Issue 5This article was originally published with the title “Hands-on” in Scientific American Magazine Vol. 330 No. 5 (), p. 13
本文最初发表于《美国科学杂志》第 330 卷第 5 期(2024 年 5 月),标题为 "Hands-on",第 13 页。