Science

Study indicates pen & paper beats stylus & screen for memory retention

Study indicates pen & paper be...
New research suggests handwriting on paper better activates memory encoding regions of the brain compared to handwriting with a stylus on a tablet
New research suggests handwriting on paper better activates memory encoding regions of the brain compared to handwriting with a stylus on a tablet
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New research suggests handwriting on paper better activates memory encoding regions of the brain compared to handwriting with a stylus on a tablet
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New research suggests handwriting on paper better activates memory encoding regions of the brain compared to handwriting with a stylus on a tablet

An intriguing new study from a team of Japanese researchers suggests handwriting on paper leads to greater brain activity and memory retention compared to handwriting with a stylus on a tablet. The researchers hypothesize the richer spatial details of writing on paper may explain why it could enhance the encoding of information in the brain.

For several years researchers have been investigating the differences in brain activity between handwriting and typewriting. Some cognitive scientists have suggested the neural processes involved in handwriting fundamentally involve greater brain activity in regions linked with the encoding of new information.

But are all the benefits of handwriting simply due to the physical process of holding a pen and writing? If so then shouldn't using a stylus on an electronic tablet result in similar outcomes?

The new research, published in the journal frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, set out to investigate any apparent differences in either brain activity or memory retention for information handwritten on a paper notebook versus an electronic tablet. The investigation recruited 48 young university students and split them into three groups.

Each subject read a fictional conversation between several students discussing future academic matters and they were then tasked with generating a future schedule for educational work over the next two months. One group recorded their schedules on paper notepads, another group used a tablet with a stylus, and the third group used a smartphone with touchscreen keypad.

An hour after the initial task each participant answered a series of questions testing their memory of the schedule while being scanned in a fMRI machine. This allowed the researchers to measure brain activity in memory regions associated with language and visualization.

The paper notebook group scored slightly better on the memory test, compared to the tablet and smartphone groups. However, activations in certain brain areas were significantly higher in the paper group. Activity in the hippocampus, precuneus, visual cortices, and other language-related frontal regions of the brain suggested memory retrieval mechanisms were more strongly encoded in the paper group.

“The significant superiority in both accuracy and activations for the Note group suggested that the use of a paper notebook promoted the acquisition of rich encoding information and/or spatial information of real papers and that this information could be utilized as effective retrieval clues, leading to higher activations in these specific regions,” the researchers conclude in the study.

Although the study is small, the researchers hypothesize a number of reasons for why writing on paper could be more effective at helping the brain store, and subsequently retrieve, novel information. The key factor seems to be due to the tactile and spatial properties of writing on paper.

“… the actual writing of notes relative to each page of the real paper provides more concrete encoding information, because that information can be easily erased and updated by new information on the physically same screen of a tablet or smartphone,” the researchers say.

The hypothesis suggests our hippocampus, in particular, is best at integrating the what, where and when of new information. So the material properties of paper provide more fixed cues for memory encoding compared to electronic devices.

"Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall," says corresponding author Kuniyoshi Sakai. "Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin.”

While the results certainly suggest taking notes with good old fashioned pen and paper could be the best way to help your brain remember, this single small study is by no means definitive. Perhaps the biggest question hanging off this new finding is whether prolonged use of electronic devices from a young age counters any of these note benefits from paper note-taking.

The new study was published in the journal frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Source: University of Tokyo

2 comments
neutrino23
It makes sense. More sensory information helps you locate the content. It points the way to designing digital notebooks that would have the same, or better, utility.
Richard Reisman
Interesting. Since I take notes in pencil, does the added tactile variety of pencil add to retention? Or maybe negligible and not evident in final page layout? And what about erasures? Also negligible?