In recent years, some countries such as Finland and Norway have decided to choose to educate their students through screens and keyboards and reject the old way of learning with pencil and paper. or chalk and blackboard. And since then, there are many voices and evidence from the world of neuroscience and psychopedagogy that emphasize the need to preserve this old way of writing by hand because of its cognitive benefits and its advantages when it comes to internalizing concepts.
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The most recent contribution in this field is a work led by Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) researcher Audrey van der Meer where she studies the underlying neural networks involved in two ways of writing. . In this, its authors claim to show that when writing by hand the patterns of brain connections are more detailed than when writing by type or on the keyboard of a tablet or computer.
For the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, scientists recorded the electrical signals in the brains of 36 university students between 18 and 29 years old through electroencephalography (EEG) while they wrote or typed a word that appeared on the screen. To write by hand, the volunteers used a digital pen on the touch screen, while to type they used one finger on the device with keys. The signal recorded is the high-density EEG, which measures the electrical activity of the brain using 256 small sensors sewn into a web and placed on the head, within five seconds of each reading.
What they found was that the connectivity of different brain regions increased when the participants wrote by hand, but not when they typed. “Such long-term connections in the brain are known to be important for memory formation and for encoding new information and are therefore useful for learning,” explains Van der Meer. “Our findings suggest that the visual and motor information acquired through precisely controlled hand movements when using a pen significantly contributes to the patterns of brain connectivity that promote learning.”
Stimulate the brain and body
Although the participants used digital pens to write by hand, the researchers say that the results are expected to be the same as using a real pen on paper. “We have shown that differences in brain activity are associated with the careful formation of letters when writing by hand and at the same time using the senses more,” said Van der Meer.
In contrast, the simple act of pressing a key with the same finger repeatedly doesn’t stimulate the brain as much, according to these results. “This also explains why children who learn to read and write on a tablet may have difficulty recognizing letters that are mirror images of each other, such as ‘b’ and ‘d’ ,’” said the researcher. “They really don’t feel in their bodies what it feels like to create lyrics.”
With this new data, the authors suggest that it will be useful to give students the opportunity to use pens, while still staying up to date with technological progress. This includes knowing which writing method offers the best advantages in each situation and can be used. “There is some evidence that students learn better and remember better when taking handwritten notes, while using a computer with a keyboard can be more practical when writing long texts or essays,” concluded Van der Meer.
These results add to a long series of studies where the benefits of handwriting and establishing hand-eye coordination have been proven. Previous experiments have shown, for example, that handwriting improves compositional writing skills and that students plan their texts better when using pencil and paper than when using a keyboard. A 2021 study showed that students remembered concepts better when they wrote them by hand on paper. One of the possible explanations is what is known as “embodied cognition”, the mechanism by which we combine the set of stimuli that come from our body. In this case, the process that is activated when we train more complex and particular movements and sensorimotor processes for each letter.
Juan Lupiañez, professor at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Granada, considers this a very interesting study that shows that handwriting recruits the kind of neural activity that occurs when there is learning. “When learning to write by hand, motor and visual circuits are combined, and this means more complete stimulation,” he explained. “In some way, when you write the letters for the first time, or read someone else’s handwriting, you activate the system to categorize all the ways to make a P and group them, and that makes learning better.” In his opinion, what this study reveals, along with other previous ones, is that these mechanisms force different regions of the brain and cause a more unified outline of what we read or write to be kept. “Therefore, ideas like Finland’s to teach children to write only with tablets are not good,” he sums up.
When learning to write by hand, the motor and visual circuits are combined, and this means a more complete stimulation.
Javier Marín Serrano, professor of Psychology of Language at the University of Murcia, believes that the conclusion of this new work is fully consistent with current knowledge that links brain activity to learning outcomes. But it found some problems from a methodological point of view, such as not controlling for possible differences and experience in using the keyboard and handwriting of the volunteers. “On the other hand,” he pointed out, “the authors seem to generalize their conclusions a little too lightly to school-aged children.” This has to be done carefully, because the brain of a 20-year-old like those in the study — remember — doesn’t work the same way as a 10-year-old.
Consequences for your adult life
Marta Ochoa, head of the Neurology-Neuropediatrics Service at HM Hospitals in Madrid, believes that this new result confirms something we already know, that writing by hand activates many neural areas involved in visual and spatial perception, and serves to develop fine motor skills. skills. “The more areas I activate in an activity, the more neurons wake up and my cognitive capacity improves, something that is useful for students, not only for studying, but for other tasks in their future lives, like driving.”
In short, he assures, knowing how to hold a pen and knowing how to use it involves more movements and methods than typing. “A computer doesn’t give you good control, a pen does,” he said. In his experience with minors, the specialist sees every day how many do not know how to hold a pencil and miss the stimuli and emotions associated with this path of learning. What will happen to these generations in the future? “We still don’t have the data, but we’ll see,” he said. “My opinion as an expert is that there are certain parts of their brain that are not being used in development and are likely to cause difficulties in their adult life.”