Writing by hand may help improve memory

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In a new study, researchers found that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later.

Contrary to the popular belief that digital tools increase efficiency, volunteers who used paper completed a memory task about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.

The researchers say that the complex, spatial and tactile information linked to writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.

The research was conducted by a team at the University of Tokyo and elsewhere.

In the study, a total of 48 volunteers read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for two months in the near future, including 14 different class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments.

Volunteers then recorded the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone and a touch-screen keyboard.

There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules, without spending extra time to memorize the schedule.

After one hour, volunteers answered a range of simple and complex questions to test their memory of the schedule.

While they completed the test, volunteers were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which measures blood flow around the brain.

The team found participants who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar within about 11 minutes. Tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users took about 16 minutes.

Volunteers who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus—an area known to be important for memory and navigation.

Researchers say that the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.

The team says paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper.

Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, the digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.

Although they have no data from younger volunteers, researchers suspect that the difference in brain activation between writing and digital methods is likely to be stronger in younger people.

High school students’ brains are still developing and are so much more sensitive than adult brains.

Although the current research focused on learning and memorization, the researchers encourage using paper for creative pursuits as well.

The study is published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. One author of the study is Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai.

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