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Dossier 15/12/2013

Writing by hand is good for the brain.

Whether sending a message to a friend, taking notes in a meeting or simply remembering an appointment, writing by hand seems to be slowly disappearing, replaced by typing on a physical or digital keyboard.

Should we prefer the keyboard? In the United States it seems the debate has been settled, because by 2015 there will no longer be a requirement to learn to write cursive in primary school. In certain Swedish schools, nursery age children learn to use a tablet’s touchscreen before knowing how to write letters in an exercise book (source: Courrier International no. 1194 of 19.09.2013). Although there has yet to be a child who has learned to write using only digital tools, this face-off between the pen and the keyboard is controversial.
Putting usage and efficiency comparisons between the two tools to one side, studies of our brain by neurologists have revealed that writing “by hand” is an essential part of the learning process. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), scientists can now observe the parts of the brain that are active when we are writing by hand, and when reading the letters of the alphabet. These studies show that the neurological activity identifying the order in which characters are written takes place in the motor cortex and the somatosensory cortex. These two areas of the brain are very close to each other and enable us on the one hand to plan and control our movements and so initiate a learning process turned clearly towards the digital, and, on the other, to process information that we access through our sense of touch. Writing is therefore a matter both of movement and sensation, which is perhaps not a surprise discovery. What did surprise the researchers though, was to discover that just reading letters also makes demands on those same areas of the brain, as well as on the reading region. The discovery proves that our brain is unconsciously simulating writing the letters that it reads: letter recognition is multimodal, taking place both visually, but also by touch, or more accurately, by unconscious mental simulation of the movements we make to write them.

Our body does the writing

To sum up, reading means writing, and an extended neural network is involved in the process, since other cerebral regions are also involved, such as language and the areas associated with learning and comprehension processes. By comparison, writing only using a keyboard seems to be less beneficial. When the letters are typed on a keyboard, the cerebral process is entirely different, since the relationship between the letter and the movement is arbitrary. At the motor level, the processes are far simpler and require much less from the brain. In short, learning to write using a keyboard is not necessarily to be recommended and intensive keyboard use to take notes in the higher levels of education is of little benefit in terms of memorising and digesting the information noted. Maria Montessori, originator of the teaching method that bears her name, was right to emphasise that cognitive activity is stimulated by physical activity. Just as calculators have not replaced the need for mental arithmetic, writing by hand is far from being obsolete, and plays an active role in some learning processes, even in an adult context.


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Thierry Poulin
Thierry Poulin 24/02/2018 18:09:33

Personnellement, c'est vrai que j'ai de plus en plus de mal à écrire à la main et cela me fait me sentir un peu bébête ! :(

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