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.