How I Boost My Brain Power with the Mighty Pen
An old school hack to retain information longer
By Kelly Simmerman
I know, I know you don’t have time to handwrite notes, especially if you’re sitting in a classroom or a meeting, or you are at a workshop. There are also many apps you could download to help take notes. That’s what I thought, as well, until I was in Sommelier school a few years ago.
I was to take a test on French and Italian wine regions and their informing grapes. I got this, I thought. I had paid attention, taken notes in class on my laptop, and reviewed them before the test. Makes sense, right?
I bombed the test. And no amount of sniffing and swirling could help me.
So I researched how to retain new information, and this is what I found.
There are many claims that the pen is mightier than the keyboard.
Clicking across a keyboard enables you to jot down more material. Still, you’re more likely to remember those notes if you handwrite them, according to research from the National Library of Medicine.
The study suggests that we base the mastery of handwriting on the involvement of a network of brain structures whose involvement and inter-connection are specific to writing alphabet characters. We build this network on the joint learning of writing and reading.
Turns out, your memory of handwritten words ties to the movements required to make each letter. This might be what helps the memory of what we’ve written hang around in our brains a bit longer.
Meanwhile, pressing buttons on a keyboard activates fewer areas of the brain, so we forget what we’ve typed. Most of us have memorized the keyboard and don’t need to use much eye-hand coordination. You are also only using fine motor skills as you type, unlike holding a pen and looking down at what you are writing.
If you were born in the 1980s or sooner, you don’t remember a time without computers or cell phones. All your life, you have been looking at a screen and tapping away on a keyboard. Oh sure, you learned how to handwrite, but you don’t do that as much as typing. So, handwriting something longer than a sticky note might feel new and different.
Doing something new creates unique brain pathways and makes new connections that become more automatic the more we use them. That’s why you can end up at work in the morning and not remember driving there.
As we build these new pathways, the brain needs much more energy as attention and focus on sustaining the new connections. Without persistent attention and focus, we often go back to our old patterns because of the higher energy demands needed to stabilize the new habits. In the words of David Rock, who coined the term, Attention density occurs when we put “sufficient quality and quantity of focus onto something, the circuitry in the brain will be stabilized in a new pattern.”
In other words, don’t fall back onto your keyboard. Keep up the handwriting even if it seems difficult.
“It forces your brain to process the information at a different level,” according to Suzanne McMillan, coordinator of Success Courses at the Academic Success Center (ASC). “When you’re typing, you’re thinking about what you’re typing, but you’re often recording it verbatim. You can’t write as quickly as you type, so you actually think about what is most important.”
Write Important Stuff More Than Once
Revise your notes. You should revise notes as soon as possible after a lecture, meeting, or workshop, or even during the event if there’s a pause or break.
Write any additional details or points of information or ideas that reading your notes helps bring to mind.
Reread. Reading handwritten notes involves more parts of your brain than reading typed text. So, rereading your notes can also boost your memory and help you remember some easily forgotten juicy details.
Without going too deep into this (pun intended), during REM sleep, the brain selects which portions of new neural circuitry it wants to eliminate and which portions it plans to strengthen and enhance. So, if you had been handwriting your notes, rewriting and rereading them several times, your brain understands the need to keep that new information. Without REM sleep, that deep sleep state, the brain can’t perform one of its functions that make newly learned tasks stick.
If the subject is complex, outline it
It doesn’t take much thought-organizing to compose the average text message, but if you’re writing something more complex, with multiple angles, questions, or requests, get all that stuff sorted before you sit down to write. Outlining or even just some quick handwritten notes about the topics you are studying can save you time answering clarifying questions later.
What you can do at home
With so many of us working and remote learning from home, it is even more important to get off the screens and do some handwriting.
First drafts of stories, homework, journaling can all be practical handwriting exercises. Neuroscientist Dr Claudia Aguirre says,
“The better we write, the better we read. Handwriting quantity is also linked to enhanced writing and reading skills.”
Right about now, you’re probably wondering if I made it through wine school… Yes! I graduated, but I had to adopt all these strategies, and you can too.
So, pick up a notebook and try it out! It might change your life way faster than any hot new app.