Monday, July 21, 2014

In Praise of Handwriting

When you take notes, whether in college or in a meeting, you do best to do it longhand. If you type notes on a laptop or an iPad, consider it a bad habit. Try putting the machine aside and take notes with pen on paper… preferably on yellow legal paper.

Why should this be so?

Since most people type faster than they write, they can transcribe words more quickly on a keyboard than on a legal pad. When you are typing your notes into a machine you are spending less time reflecting on what you are writing.

This will make it more difficult to recall and to understand the information. When you take extra time to write, your brain is working over the material, thinking about it, understanding it. You will have better recall and will be better able to grasp the issues at hand.

How does this apply to the act of writing… as in writing an article or a book or a column?

When you write directly on a computer are you thereby allowing your thoughts to flow more freely? Does keyboard writing suffer less self-censorship?

Most writers, even today, prefer to write their drafts by hand, not on a computer. More thought makes for better prose.

They also find that those who write on a keyboard are more prone to add lots of filler to their texts. Often you can tell if a text has been written by hand or by the computer by the amount of excessive verbiage. If you write drafts on a computer you will need to be a very good editor.

This raises an interesting question. Does the excessively wordy product of keyboard work represent a truer expression of your thought process or is it filler that you throw in to keep your fingers moving?

In three studies by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer recently published in Psychological Science, it was found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

Mueller, a Princeton University doctoral candidate, says that one surprising aspect of the study was that even though someone can take more notes via a laptop, transcribing those notes verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. In other words, you may write slower than you can type, but you’re also listening, digesting and summarizing what you hear.

But then, the researchers asked, if you take a pad and pen to a meeting you might also be more likely to doodle. They found that this is not such a bad thing:

Of course, toting along a pad and pen to a meeting also increases the chances that workers will begin doodling, which isn’t possible while typing on a keyboard. While bosses may feel that doodling signals the worker isn’t paying attention, research shows that isn’t the case.

The brain is designed to always be active (to ensure that a woolly mammoth won’t sneak up unnoticed), so if you don’t give it something to do, it will go looking. Daydreams of winning the lottery or dating a supermodel will begin to occupy you when you are bored, which can often happen in a meeting.

Apparently, if you do not set your brain to work, it will find something else to do… like daydreaming and being distracted. If you do not give it a purpose, it will find some purposeless activity to while away the time.


Leo G said...

"They also find that those who write by hand are more prone to add lots of filler to their texts."

Stuart, I think you may have meant "write by Keyboard"

Were you doodling at the time of writing this? :)

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Distracted, no doubt. Thanks for catching the error, Leo.

Larry Sheldon said...

Reminding all that I have NO credentials even remotely relevant.....

I have long believed that the brain is NOT a fully meshed network. Not every part of the brain is even aware of, much less in communication with ever other part.

So it follows that eyes, hands, and motor circuits used composing and writing may get the word to places that disconnected touch-typing does not.

(My cockamamie ideas are bigger than this little snippet.)

Anonymous said...

I've taken notes by hand all my life. I've started doing it by a computer, but it seems awkward. I feel limited by linear limits like straight horizontal lines and efforts to move the cursor to note something in the margin. That, and the text is uniform, which makes it difficult to find points of emphasis. Mind Mapping has always been my favorite, and working with programs to do mind maps is arduous, even on an iPad with a stylus.

I've often rationalized that it would be so much easier for me to use and transcribe (or rather transfer) my notes if I took them on a computer. But that's not true, either. I rarely look back at my notes, and when I do I am glancing at something and I know exactly where it is in the space of the page.

I don't remember things as well if I don't take notes.

I'm with Larry Sheldon... it seems we take a lot of things for granted with neuroscience, and the discipline is in its infancy. It reminds me of that hilarious Steve Martin sketch on SNL as the Barber of York. I often read pop neuroscience, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology and wonder "What would you like me to do with this information?" What's the point? Yes, some of it is interesting, but the practical implication seems to encourage inaction rather than action because it makes you question your impulse at every turn. It doesn't shift your thinking as much as it burdens your thinking and causes you to distrust your intuition. Taken on balance, this comes at a great cost. That kind of "overhead" in mental calculation costs time and money. Some of my smartest friends are the most gun-shy, hesitant and inert because they don't want to do anything stupid.