Guest post: Write it down

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Special treat this Monday morning: guest blogger Art Decker shares some fascinating research into the neurological benefits of writing things down.

Image via qisur

There is no substitute for a pen and paper. But the pen has to be a good pen, one that is a pleasure to write with. For some people a good pen is a plain ball point pen from the local drugstore. For others, it is a $1,000 fountain pen that comes in its own case and gives its user the feeling of painting on paper. The paper, too, must be good. If your pen scratches the paper, writing things down will not be a pleasure — and you won’t do it.

I can hear the naysayers already. Why not just use an electronic gadget? You can find to-do list and productivity software, much of which can be downloaded free, that is geared to any productivity system you like — GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done), ZTD (Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done), Sally McGhee’s Take Back Your Life, or Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. Why use caveman tactics like pen and paper when you can wholeheartedly embrace the 21st century?

Because pen and paper are better for your brain, that’s why. The heart of the GTD system and other productivity systems is to get ideas out of your brain and into containers or buckets, or at least onto to-do lists and calendars. The system takes over so you don’t have to think.

Here’s the problem with that notion, though: personally, I am in favor of thinking. I LIKE keeping information in my brain. I regard information residing in my head as a GOOD thing.

And maybe you think I’m a dinosaur, but the best neurologists agree with me. Writing things down physically, using a pen and paper, rewires your brain. If writing is a pleasurable experience, as it will be if you use the good tools that I recommend (pens that are a joy to use, paper that soaks up ink instead of forcing you to scratch the ink across the surface), then you get an added benefit — your brain will associate being organized and getting things done with the release of pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

1. Writing improves verbal abilities. Researchers at the University of Washington (see “The pen may be mightier than the keyboard,” Science Daily Sept. 18, 2009) discovered last year that children who write fluently with a pen and paper write longer, faster, and produce better quality work than children who write equally fluently with a keyboard. Think about that. If you are in an information-driven field, don’t you want your verbal abilities to be at their peak? If you consistently compose everything on a keyboard and you never write, your ability to conceptualize ideas and express them articulately may be impaired. Writing things down could push your verbal abilities — for speaking as well as for writing — to the next level.

2. Writing keeps information in our heads. According to neurologists, we are less likely to forget things if we record them in a way that involves more than one sense. If I write something down, I’ve recorded it using my muscle memory and my eyes (since I look at what I am writing as I write it). Better yet, I could read my writing aloud to myself, so that the information is stored in my brain in one more way. If I use a keyboard to write, I am only recording my words in one way, through my eyes as I watch the letters appear on a screen. If you’ve ever crammed for a test, you know that the stuff you stare at often enough does not necessarily stick with you — it goes in your short term memory and then it’s gone. Now, if you are a fan of getting stuff out of your head into buckets, a la GTD, then you may regard this as a good thing. Me, I’d rather have all the facts related to my work at my fingertips — which to me means securely coded into my brain cells where I can access them faster than any computerized device in my arsenal.

3. Writing keeps our brains young. Maybe your bones are getting more brittle as they age (weight-bearing exercise is the key to avoiding that problem, but that would be a whole other post!), but your brain isn’t. Your brain is still plastic and malleable — at least it can be, if you make a point of continuing to learn new things as you get older. Sitting in front of a screen and typing all the time just won’t do that for you. It will help, yes. There is new research showing that our brains are affected by Internet research, and the effects are not all bad. But writing things down wires the new things you are learning into your brain, causing you to form new neural connections, and keeping your brain plastic — and young.

Still don’t believe me? Check out the Levenger’s catalogue, or any purveyor of the fanciest pens and paper, like Fountain Pen Hospital. You’ll notice something. The people who are addicted to fine pens and paper are doing fairly well for themselves in life. They have to be, or they wouldn’t be buying $1000 pens — or even $100 pens. Do those people attribute their success to their fine writing instruments? I don’t know, but I do know that the people I know who are addicted to physically writing stuff down are also sharp as a tack mentally — at any age. Think about it.

Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a California self storage locator. Art leads a busy life and often travels between sites, like from Texas to the New York self storage site. As a result, Art has developed a strong interest in topics such as productivity, organization, and balancing work and home life.

8 thoughts on “Guest post: Write it down

  1. I heartily applaud this post. I always knew that if I wanted to remember something, all I had to do was write it down. Being an avid journaler, I am validated at the news of the brain chemical stimulus. Now I know for a fact that I am addicted! **grins!**

    That said, I have to add my nod to Notemily. Being the sole breadwinner of a family of five, I am one of those who cannot afford the pens that I desire. Fortunately, some manufacturers have made less expensive models (Yay! to Lamy and Pilot). I’m also addicted to fountain pens.

  2. There is nothing more satisfying than the slow and thoughtful method of writing on paper with pencil or pen. I wouldn’t go as far to say the price of the writing instrument makes the writer (some of my favorite jaunts have been captured with the simple No. 2 pencil, sharpened when necessary).

    Much as I love the paperless and easy-to-dump words method of writing, I could never give up my morning journaling with one of two fountain pens (yes, they are both from Levenger). Nor can I ever give up the physical act of writing down “to do’s”. Some of my friends tap away at their Blackberry (or similar electronic device) to remind themselves of this or that but I’d forget to look at the danged thing. I use my desktop and netbook for bigger writing projects: first draft to completion; notes; organizing and reshuffling. But I also carry around a small journal filled with handwritten jots of ideas and taped-in notations and sketches.

  3. Just when I’m about to give up on my writing as taking too much time & doing nothing for me, a really neat article like this comes my way & reinforces just how very much writing does for us. Very timely! Thanks so much. I really do believe that hand writing & journaling do something very positive for our brains. Especially given all the new info out these days on brain chemistry, i.e. Drs. Amen and Braverman, keeping our brains healthy is essential in keeping our bodies healthy also.

  4. I definitely agree with your statement that “writing improves verbal abilities.” Often, when I am beginning the first draft of a blog post (or any other piece of writing), I cannot use the computer but must begin writing with a pen or pencil and a piece of paper. I am not sure what about pen and paper makes writing easier – perhaps it is something to do with the immediacy of the writing or the tactile sensations of the pen/pencil on the paper.

  5. That last paragraph is faulty reasoning. “People who buy expensive pens must have a lot of money, or they wouldn’t buy expensive pens, therefore expensive pens make people successful!” You could just as well say that anything expensive is a reason for someone’s success.

    • Hi Emily,

      The idea I was conveying is that when a significant investment is made in a purchase, that person values the innate purpose and use for what they are buying. Those who own valuable writing utensils have the disposable income to purchase such an item (conveying a certain degree of wealth) and also appreciate and use them. Of course, there may be compounding factors in the comparison I made, however I think it stands to reason that some of the items that successful people enjoy and cherish may be a reflection of values that enabled them to attain their accomplishments.
      I appreciate your insight,

      • But there could be plenty of people who love fancy pens and paper, but don’t have the money to buy the really good ones. They have the same values but they’re not as “successful.” Maybe those people even outnumber the people who can afford fancy pens–there’s no way of knowing. It’s still a fallacy.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree. This is intuitively obvious to me and there’s lots of research proving that, for example, one retains more by taking notes in class by hand instead of typing.

    A disturbing trend in education these days is there’s a new generation of students who are unable to write efficiently because it’s no longer taught. Most public schools no longer teach longhand, only block-letter printing. These young people will be unable to appreciate the advantage of handwriting because they are unable to do it in the first place. Their only experience of handwriting is inefficient and slow printing, so they will assume that all handwriting is slow and inefficient. A few years ago I was buying groceries and the girl at the checkstand saw me dashing off some notes to myself. She stopped, and watched, and said “Gee your handwriting’s pretty. I wish I could do that.” We talked for a minute and I learned that she cannot write longhand at all. What? I was stunned.

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