Kids aren’t writing by hand, and it’s changing their brains

Neuropsychologist Audrey van der Meer’s research on handwriting reveals what’s at stake if writing by hand becomes obsolete in schools. Spoiler: it’s our brains.

Van der Meer, a brain researcher and Professor of Neuropsychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, isn’t totally opposed to digital devices. She herself would use a keyboard to write an essay. But if you really want to remember something – be that in a lecture, or even just your shopping list, she recommends putting pen to paper and writing it down.

But how did she come to this conclusion? And what led her to study the link between memory, learning and writing by hand in the first place? According to Van der Meer, who spoke to Prodir via email, it was a sequence of events combined with her long-standing fascination with early human development and learning.

“In 2015, Microsoft Europe contacted us because they had come across our electrode nets that allow us to see what is happening inside the brains of babies and children during development and learning. They wondered if we could think of an experiment that investigated the brain during different writing activities.”

Van der Meer’s team were given free rein. They went on to design an experiment based on the popular party game, Pictionary, where university students had to draw pictures of given words on a tablet with a digital pen, type the words on a keyboard, and type a description of the words.

Despite explaining prior to the experiment that they couldn’t guarantee results, this experiment led to them reporting in 2017 that the brain works much more when drawing than when typing. Then came the game-changing question – what about handwriting?

In 2020, handwriting was added to the experimental conditions and the team found that while both drawing and handwriting are based on the same underlying neural mechanisms, typewriting is different and does not activate the brain as much as using a pen does.

With their findings in mind, alongside their most recent report that there isn’t the same widespread brain connectivity when writing words using a keyboard compared to when they’re written by hand, could this spell the end of technology in classrooms?

“I really do not want to come across as pessimistic on behalf of the next generation growing up in a mainly digital world, but our research shows that handwriting is an essential fine-motor skill that provides excellent stimulation to the developing brain.”

While these important neural networks that children make when writing by hand are crucial for learning, remembering and attention, Van der Meer veers away from rejecting technology altogether in the classroom. “I propose that all children should receive a minimum of handwriting tuition during primary school.”

Ultimately, accepting the importance of writing by hand doesn’t have to mean holding onto the past in education. Our brains operate on a “use it or lose it” principle. And while we can’t change this aspect of how we learn, we can change our habits. In schools, that will just look like a little less time on a tablet, and a little more time with a pen in hand.

Research by Professor Audrey van der Meer, alongside other renowned scientists and scholars, has become the inspiration for notebook company Moleskine’s latest campaign, “Pen and paper”, which will launch on the 22nd of April. A variety of studies and quotes will be graphically represented on the campaign posters and placed around Milan during Design Week.