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Need to Boost Your Brainpower? Write–Don’t Type–This Down

Studies confirm what many have long suspected: When it comes to taking notes, handwriting matters.

image via (cc) flickr user chungholeung

When’s the last time you wrote something by hand? I mean really stopped, and took the time to put pen to paper, rather than simply type something out. Gone are the days when college lecture halls are filled with the sound of scratching notes being cranked out across reams of notebook paper. Instead, students increasingly take their notes amidst a cacophony of click-claking laptop keyboards, and the occasional, accidentally un-muted, *ding* of an incoming IM. But while technology has certainly made it easier to take more notes, more ways, in more places, that very same “more” is not necessarily better. In spite of the convenience typed notes may offer, research suggests that writing things down by hand may be significantly better for your brain.


image via (cc) flickr user freddyfromutah

As a teaching assistant for psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer, Princeton University graduate student Pam Mueller one day made a fortuitous switch from typed notes to handwritten ones. After having done so, she realized her experience in that day’s lecture was much more rewarding than usual. Oppenheimer, it turns out, had had similar experiences, in which “[h]e was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.” Curious as to whether the oft-repeated adage that handwritten notes are better than typed ones was actually true, Oppenheimer and Mueller decided to put the theory to the test. Their results, published last spring as “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” in Psychological Science journal, confirm: While typing may allow for more notes taken, those notes are often of a lower ultimate quality than handwritten ones.

For their study, explains the Association for Psychological Science, Oppenheimer and Mueller showed a series of TED Talks educational videos to groups of research subjects—some who’d been asked to take notes by laptop, others by hand. The subjects were then given a series of tasks to help distract them from what they’d just seen (think of the tasks like palate cleansers for the brain) before being quizzed on both the factual, and conceptual information they’d watched. While both types of note-takers did comparably well on the factual questions, the conceptual questions were significantly more difficult for those subjects who’d been placed in the “typing” group.

image via (cc) flickr user warzauwynn

The key seems to be the difference between copying something word for word and the act of processing, contextualizing, and framing new information. Because typing allows note-takers to write things faster, they often will write down, nearly verbatim, what is being presented to them. Conversely, handwritten notes often require a measure of processing, contextualizing, and framing that helps the brain better retain, and recall, the information being written down. As Mueller explained during a recent interview with Public Radio International:

“You’d think that a laptop notetaker [would] have all this content written down, so maybe if they went back and studied it later, they’d be fine -- but we found that that wasn’t the case. We were really, really surprised by that. Even if they got to study their notes, the longhand notetakers were still doing better, so if they hadn’t encoded it at the outset, they didn’t get it back later from studying”

Not that these findings mean we’re necessarily looking at a rush to return to the days of pen and paper in the lecture hall. Rather, they offer some insight into how our brains process and keep information presented to us in different ways. For people who have an easier time with concepts than facts, maybe typing notes isn’t quite so bad. However, for those of us who can easily remember dates and stats, but have a harder time making conceptual leaps, perhaps it’s time to close the laptop and pick up a pen, instead.

[via Public Radio International]

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