November 10th 2013

Don’t forget to write

Writing is a powerful tool for learning and preserving mental acuity. A survey of current research reveals that writing powerfully influences learning, achieving goals, and staying sharp in old age.

Handwriting starts out as scribbles. With encouragement a toddler’s abstract art becomes pictures they can talk about which leads then to recognizing and drawing shapes. This experience with lines and curves prepares young children to write and recognize letters. The transition to actual writing occurs when children can trace and then copy letters that are important to them ie: the first letter of a child’s name. Typically, this process forms the foundation for learning to read.

So, what happens when a child types on a computer keyboard instead? Researchers at Indiana University compared two groups of preschoolers. One group learned letters and symbols by handwriting, the other by typing. MRI scans showed that the brains of the children in the handwriting group could distinguish between letters and shapes but the typing group could not. “Handwriting seems to prime the brain to respond to letters in a literate way that typing doesn’t,” says Karin Harman James psychology professor.

That’s fine in the laboratory but a parent has to deal with their tyke’s real life fascination with technology. Luckily, an iPhone app: “abc PocketPhonics” guides children to draw letters with finger or stylus on the screen.

Not just for kids

But there’s more than children’s games involved when we write. Writing continues to stimulate learning in adult brains. Studies at Aix-Marseille University in France noted that adults as well as preschoolers who were learning a foreign alphabet retained more information longer when they learned by writing rather than with a keyboard. The act of writing involves the brain in processing and experiencing the shape of the letters. According to Theirry Olive, a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, the additional movement required to write stimulates visual and motor systems as well as the brain’s emotional centers. This proves useful when learning symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry and when learning a graphically different language such as Mandarin.

Other research highlights the hand’s unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington says images of the brain illustrate that sequential finger movements activate massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory. A recent study demonstrated that children wrote more words faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

Lest we forget

According to a study in Clinical Interventions in Aging Chinese researchers found that elderly subjects experiencing mild cognitive impairment who took up calligraphy for eight weeks experienced improved brain function while the control group got worse.

Make a list

With so many things on our minds this time of year writing can help us achieve our goals. Cells at the base of our brains called the reticular activating system (RAS) act as a filter. The RAS prioritizes what you are focusing on at any given moment. The physical act of writing sends a signal to the cerebral cortex that alerts it to pay attention.

Writer’s block

And what about all that fun scribbling we gave up so long ago? Perhaps doodling will help you compose that holiday letter. The book, The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown suggests that drawing stimulates the neurological networks responsible for imagination and discovery.

Read write and draw with a child every day!

Lately, I have been enjoying I Love to Draw books by Jennifer Lipsey. In these how-to books, simple cartoons are built on squiggles and geometric shapes. The books are bright and lively with a minimum of text. Although they are written for children, I have been having lots of fun with them all by myself.