In today’s increasingly technological world, handwriting is a skill that many people are losing. A quick look at headlines from the past few years shows a range of publications wondering about (and sometimes lamenting) the decrease in time spent on handwriting in schools. There aren’t many times that you can’t communicate with a keyboard… so why should we worry?
Well, for one, because handwriting could be linked with creativity.
Handwriting and the Brain
A few functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have looked at handwriting, and the results are very interesting. One study, cited in the Wall Street Journal, indicated that children who had received handwriting instruction had neural activity that was “far more enhanced and ‘adult-like’ than in those who had simply looked at letters.”
A 2012 study showed that handwriting training helped recruit areas of the brain used in the development of reading skills. Even just reading handwritten, instead of printed, letters uses different parts of the brain. But it’s not just in brain activation where handwriting makes a difference.
Another article in the Wall Street Journal reported on a few studies done on students who took handwritten, instead of typed, notes in class. Those who typed out their notes took down more words-per-minute and had better recall of the material immediately after the lecture. But students who wrote their notes by hand — despite taking fewer notes — had better recall up to a week later and “had a better grip on concepts presented in class”.
So it’s not just fMRI activation. Writing things out by hand actually seems to better encode them in memory.
Handwriting and Creativity
Okay, so handwriting is good for remembering things, but what does that have to do with creativity? On the neurological side, there’s some evidence for a link between the two. Creative thinking requires the connection of different types of ideas, and handwriting activates multiple areas of the brain in a way that typing doesn’t.
Because creativity is such an abstract concept, it’s difficult to measure or quantify how handwriting might affect it. But there are a number of reasons to believe that handwriting could have an important effect on your creative thoughts. For example, many people use handwriting as a form of meditation, an activity that uniquely affects the brain and has been used to come up with creative ideas for centuries.
The field of embodied cognition looks at the relationship between the mind and body, and one of the things scholars in this field have looked at is creativity. For example, one study found that fluid arm movements increased creativity (described as “fluid thought”). It’s certainly possible that the fluid movements of handwriting could have a similar effect.
There’s also something to be said for the speed — or lack thereof — at which handwriting takes place. Typing is significantly faster for most people, especially if they’ve had any training or practice. But using multiple strokes, instead of a single keypress, and spending more time on each letter and word, gives the brain more of a chance to process the ideas that are being recorded. Creative ideas take time to emerge, and giving them those extra few seconds can make a big difference.
Much of this is speculative, but there’s some historical evidence that might sway skeptics. Many famous authors, for example, wrote out their novels (or at least significant portions of them) by hand. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, wrote in pencil on 3×5-inch index cards. Truman Capote also reportedly only wrote in pencil. Nail Gaiman, Stephen King, Dylan Thomas, John Steinbeck, and J.K. Rowling have all talked about writing by hand.
And while these are obviously very naturally gifted people, it seems like there might be something useful to learn there.
Handwriting and Creative Skills
It’s not just mental creative processes that can benefit from handwriting — there are a number of more immediately practical facets, too. Whether you consider yourself to be a visual artist or not, there’s a benefit to having the fine motor control it takes to turn an idea in your head into one on paper.
Translating an idea to a drawing — even a very rough sketch — is a great way to begin a problem-solving process. Even if you’re, for example, a writer, making a visual representation of the structure of your article or book can be a huge help in the writing process. And while this sort of sketching isn’t directly related to handwriting, the more you’ve worked with a pen or pencil, the more comfortable you will be doing it.
Gaining better control of the muscles in your hand and wrist through the exercise of handwriting could help you develop a steady hand. That’s useful in all sorts of creative pursuits, from calligraphy to photography to painting. And no one’s going to be impressed by the handwritten notes, dedications, or signatures you include with your work if they’re unreadable.
Don’t Let Handwriting Die
It might seem like handwriting is on the way out, and it’s very tempting to just let it go. But as creatives, we owe it to ourselves to keep writing things out by hand. There’s absolutely no better way to write than on nice paper with a fountain pen (seriously, I use one all the time, and it’s amazing), but even jotting notes on a Post-It with a pencil is good for your brain.
You don’t need to commit to writing a novel by hand. Just make sure that handwriting is a part of your daily routine. Journaling, brainstorming, and taking notes are all good ways to put the skill to use. Don’t worry if your handwriting is terrible — just get started! (But if it’s really bad, check out these resources for improving it.)
Do you think handwriting is a valuable skill? Do you feel it helps you as a creative? Or are you content to tap everything out on your iPhone? Share your thoughts below!