Over the past few days, there has been a good deal of handwringing over handwriting.
Students are shifting away from the written word and toward that of the typed—and in the wake of this trend, parents, teachers, and researchers have begun to raise concerns that learning and retention are suffering. Which makes sense. For example, we can't write as fast as we can type, so manual note-taking naturally involves immediate synthesis (as opposed to transcription).
But neuroscientists will be neuroscientists and lug in the fMRI scanner. They'll show us that there's more activation in the posterior parietal cortex in handwritten compared to typed conditions. That more motor pathways are recruited or that "a unique neural circuit is automatically activated" when we write. (Does that phrase actually mean anything?)
It's easy to hide behind the allure of neuroimaging—but are these studies really telling us anything new?
The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.