Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


This Is Your Brain

cursive-handwriting

(Photo: Essl/Shutterstock)

Hand-Wringing Over Handwriting

• July 14, 2014 • 5:00 AM

(Photo: Essl/Shutterstock)

It improves cognitive function and socialization. And it’s all but gone from our schools.

If you want to gauge in earnest just how divorced education has become from the simple practice of handwriting, here is an experiment. On the first day of a college course in elementary composition, try starting the class with a “little freehand writing exercise.” From the general demeanor of the room (mere stupefaction if you’re lucky), an observer might imagine you had asked them to recite the Gettysburg Address in Aramaic. Friendly whispers will ensue, followed by the sound of respectful paper-tearing as a handful of apparent antique-enthusiasts furnish their classmates with a sheet or two. The exercise will then proceed in peaceable fashion.

“One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains.”

This is an embellishment but not entirely an exaggeration. In my own classrooms, and to the credit of my students, I have yet to see a mutiny—even when I declare a ban on laptops for significant stretches of the semester. Like most of their peers across the nation, these young scholars are required to arrive on campus with a computer (and the university provides thousands each year for those who cannot afford one). Only a hardened neo-Victorian would bemoan this arrangement. But personal computing and Web-research and furtive meme-hunting (I understand; lectures get boring) need not be incompatible with a modest foundational fluency in taking notes in pen and ink. When we lose that fluency, we lose a great deal else besides.

The truth for many of these students is that no one ever taught them cursive (let alone something like shorthand), and note-taking is thereby all the slower, even without the comparison to typing. But the problem is of much wider ambit. Dysgraphia—genetically determined—already slows development in certain children it affects, especially the development of memory-skills; meanwhile we are speedily removing the expectation that non-dysgraphic children will receive any practical instruction in a fairly delicate motor skill. The resulting developmental deficiencies can mimic the dysgraphic symptom model, and cognitive scientists are building a consensus that this failure of conditioning will probably hold kids back.

In his 1999 book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Frank R. Wilson offers an emphatic argument that our brain development depends in no small way on what we do with our hands. The New York Times‘ reviewer may have caviled a bit with Wilson’s interview methods, but recent scholarship has more or less borne out Wilson’s thrust. Nancy Darling, professor of psychology at Oberlin, summarizes the growing consensus:

Using our hands requires the development of particular areas of the brain. That’s true when we are learning to use a tool, like our ancestors wielding an axe. It’s true when we learn to play the piano. It’s true when we learn to write. It’s true when we learn to sew or play with blocks. One of the advantages of moving away from the keyboard and doing something that requires greater flexibility in how we use our hands is that it also requires greater flexibility in how we use our brains. This, in turn, requires our brains to develop in new ways.

The benefits of writing by hand, and doing so from a young age, are fundamental: improved and sustained development in social skills, hand-eye coordination, long-term memory. And when one considers “fluency” in its literal sense, it makes sense that cursive especially can energize a more fluid and coherent process of thought. Certain researchers refer to “shallower processing” among students who take notes only on their laptops—and this is apart from “multitasking,” sports-score-checking, G-chatting, and other such distractions. Writing this past April in Psychological Science, Pam Muller and Daniel Oppenheimer offer strong support for such an argument. The nub: “transcrib[ing] lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” These results build on—indeed, help confirm—a related study by Steven Peverly and his team at Columbia in 2012.

Addressing this problem in the Times, Maria Konnikova asks psychologist Stanislas Dehaene about what we lose in neglecting proper handwriting (including cursive) among early-elementary students:

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.

“And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize,” he continued. “Learning is made easier.”

(Konnikova also reminds us that the Common Core requires the teaching of “legible handwriting” but just in kindergarten and first grade.)

“With typing, you can go fast, but you have to make sure you pay attention enough to determine what’s important about what you are hearing,” Peverly has said. “Good note-taking isn’t simply about trying to take down all the information. It’s also a filtering process, a way of zeroing in on what’s most important.” This is the difference between a critical mode of note-taking and something more rote, something more like transcription.

Certain of the first American students to suffer this pronounced shift away from the pen are now in graduate school, and Professor Valerie Hotchkiss has seen its deleterious effects on archival research. Besides other duties at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, Hotchkiss oversees the school’s formidable collection of rare books and manuscripts and reports troubling episodes such as the following:

Recently, an undergraduate asked me for help with a manuscript she was studying. I assumed it was something along the lines of a medieval Latin text or perhaps even a particularly difficult Marcel Proust letter (our library holds the largest collection of Proust letters in the world), but when I bent over the letter to help, I saw that it was in English and in the very neat, clear hand of John Ruskin. “What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t do cursive,” answered the undergraduate.

The effects, which Hotchkiss describes in terms both poignant and practical, will estrange us from whole realms of our own history:

[Such students] will not even be able to read their grandmother’s diary or their parents’ love letters. An informal survey of rare-book librarians and archivists indicates that our experience at Illinois is not uncommon. Research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges. When the ability to read cursive disappears, our connection to history—and even to our own past—is lost.

Hand-wringing over handwriting—an easy way to characterize recent obituaries for children’s study of cursive. Of course cursive is disappearing, one thinks. Typing is faster, and our words look immediately more impressive when they appear before us in a bookish font. Cursive is slower, it is a precious exercise in nostalgia, it is the residue of a 19th-century gentleman’s education. To some, the teaching of handwriting—visions of yellowed, triple-staved worksheets—seems about as relevant as needlepoint or bookbinding or the Dewey Decimal System. Lamenting its demise is an act of antiquarian sentimentalism. (Never mind that it remains the only medium that the NSA cannot tap.)

But our brains need cursive—and it is negligence to deny it.

So laugh as much as you want. Circa 2060, upon the discovery of Thomas Jefferson’s erotic poetry or Queen Victoria’s lost letters or some other such historical gem, it would be nice if someone were around who could read it.

Ted Scheinman
Ted Scheinman has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, the Paris Review, the Oxford American Quarterly, and elsewhere. His first book of non-fiction will appear via Faber in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @Ted_Scheinman.

More From Ted Scheinman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.


November 19 • 12:08 PM

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it’s not in the rainbow and sing-along way you’d hope for. We just don’t trust outsiders’ judgments.


November 19 • 12:00 PM

As the Russian Hercules, Vladimir Putin Tames the Cretan Bull

We can better understand Russia’s president, including his foreign policy in Crimea, by looking at how he uses art, opera, and holiday pageantry to assert his connection to the Tsars.


November 19 • 10:00 AM

A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.


November 19 • 8:00 AM

The End to Race-Based Lockdowns in California Prisons

The legacy of “tough on crime” legislation has historically allowed correctional authorities to conceal and pursue politics that would be illegal anywhere else. Could that finally be changing?



November 19 • 6:00 AM

Like a Broken Record

From beer milers to long-distance crawlers, the unending appeal of being No. 1.


November 19 • 4:00 AM

High School Music Groups Grapple With Gender Gap

New research finds consistently higher numbers of girls compared to boys in high school bands, orchestras, and choirs.


November 18 • 4:00 PM

I Nearly Lost My Freedom Because I Couldn’t Pee in a Cup

After 21 years in federal prison for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, I’m now living in a halfway house. I can go out to work and visit my wife, but I’m sometimes reminded how vulnerable my new life is.


November 18 • 2:00 PM

Chesapeake Energy Faces Subpoena on Royalty Payment Practices

The Justice Department’s inquiry comes after an investigation and years of complaints from landowners who say they have been underpaid for leasing land to the energy giant for drilling.


November 18 • 12:02 PM

Is McDonald’s Really Becoming More Transparent?

In an increasingly ratings-based and knowledge-rich economy, the company could suffer if consumers don’t believe its new campaign is built on honesty.



Follow us


Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

To Find Suspicious Travelers, Try Talking to Them

Brief, directed conversations are more effective at identifying liars than fancy behavioral analysis, experiment suggests.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.