Handwriting, Memory, and Beyond


by Kate Gladstone

The “newest,” state-of-the art, cutting-edge medical therapy for memory loss is an ancient practice: writing things down by hand. Across the world, doctors and therapists are prescribing “journaling” — the trendy term for keeping a handwritten diary— as a way to build a better memory or rebuild a fading one. According to research published in 2013 in the neurology journal Cortex, the complex sensorimotor feedback that is involved in any form of handwriting puts multiple areas of the brain into simultaneous action, encouraging brain cells to communicate and connect with one another.[1]

Given this, it may not be coincidental that more and more states are introducing bills to require handwriting instruction. One such bill, in Alabama, has just passed into law.[2] (NOTE: Although the Alabama law specifies cursive, the research shows that handwriting’s benefits are not limited to any one style. As the article on the bill points out, beliefs that favor cursive over the other forms of our handwriting are just that — beliefs. People who write by hand in styles other than cursive are full participants in the benefits of handwriting.) 

Just how does handwriting's power to interconnect different areas of our brains lead to larger and more lasting memory building and retention than do other widely used methods, from tying a string around one's finger to reliance on computers as a memory substitute? The answer lies in a tiny, but hugely productive, network of cells within our brains: a "command center" called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) which connects the cortex (the "thinking cap" areas of the brain) to the brain stem (which sits at the top of the spine, where it controls basic physical reflexes and patterns of movement).

The RAS, which is responsible for attention, alertness, and motivation (all of which are essential to forming and retaining vivid memories) does its job best when incoming sensorimotor stimuli involve physical actions that are just complex and varied enough to nudge our brains into full alertness.[3]   

So far, the research suggests that handwriting in some form is far better at providing the necessary level of stimulation than are other ways of storing information for later recall. In other words, writing down a list of personal goals or other crucial information by hand (rather than typing it or simply repeating it over and over in an effort to memorize) stimulates our "command center" to focus attention on what we are writing down — vastly raising the odds that important information will be retained, and that crucial personal goals will be remembered and reached.

These "brain command center" interconnections may also explain why handwritten notes help us remember things even if we never read those notes after writing them. In a series of experiments published by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in 2014, college students were randomly assigned to take notes either with a laptop or with pen and paper, then tested on what they had learned. Although the students who had been required to use a laptop for their notetaking took more notes, and also took lengthier notes, the students who had been required to take notes with pen and paper retained much more of the information they had studied, and also were far more able to apply the learned information.[4]

There is even growing evidence that these beneficial effects of handwriting may benefit not just our minds, but our bodies. At the University of Texas at Austin, psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker has found that regular journaling — the simple act of writing a few sentences in a diary, by hand, every day — actually strengthens T-lymphocytes, an important category of immune cells. Other research by Pennebaker's team indicates that journaling decreases the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.  Pennebaker finds that writing about stressful events helps you process them mentally as well as emotionally — learning and remembering the lessons they bring — which reduces the burden that the stresses and strains of life may place on our physical as well as emotional health.

To integrate more handwriting into everyday routines — taking advantage of all its researched benefits for better memory, better attention, more alertness, and perhaps even better health — here are some easy suggestions:

  • Begin a handwritten journal — even one sentence a day, every day. Keep it faithfully: a little journaling, done often, is more practical and beneficial than consigning handwriting to rare and special occasions.
  • When you have something to remember — a shopping list, details of a meeting, an appointment, or a goal — write it down as soon as it comes to mind.  You don't need to form complete sentences for a note that only you will read — a handwritten “Dr. Smith 9/12 2:30 puppy shots” or “phone about furnace” is fine.
  • Instead of pulling out your cellphone every time you want to leave a note for someone in your home or at your workplace, carry a stack of sticky notes. When something comes up that may need another person's attention, write it down on the spot — and give it to that person the next time you see him or her. (As with notes to oneself, brief reminders are best — but legibility usually matters more in notes to others.)
  • Choose paper and pens that make writing pleasant for you. The more you like to write, the more — and the more often, you will write, and the more fully you will experience the many benefits of handwriting.

Kate Gladstone is Director of the World Handwriting Contest and CEO of Handwriting Repair/ Handwriting that Works, a handwriting instruction and remediation firm.

Do you have questions on handwriting?  Send your questions to Kate Gladstone by email at info@twosidesna.org or by mail to 330 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 2000, Chicago, Illinois 6061.


[1] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945213001391

[2] http://www.npr.org/2016/08/26/491107558/cursive-law-writes-new-chapter-for-handwriting-in-alabamas-schools

[3] http://www.goal-setting-motivation.com/how-your-reticular-activating-system-helps-you-achieve-your-goals/

[4] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/