Gone with the keyboard: what have we lost by stopping writing by hand?


In early 1882, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche received a machine called the Mallin-Hansen writing sphere, an ingenious device with keys. The thinker’s vision had been worsening until manual writing was impossible for him. In March of that same year he was able to continue writing, now with a new instrument

His friend, the composer Heinrich Köselitz, noted a certain change in style in his texts from that moment on. His prose had become more concise and telegraphic. Apparently, some content of his philosophy was also affected .

Mallin-Hansen writing sphere, like the one used by F. Nietzsche after his vision loss. Wikicommons Media /Tekniska museet, Stockholm, Sweden. , CC BY-SA

Embodied cognition

This fact, which makes us evoke the expression: “ the medium is the message ”, could find its explanation in the new theories of embodied cognition . Modern cognitive science tells us that the motor and sensory aspects of our behavior have consequences beyond what we suspected.

Our mind is not a world of disembodied ideas. It is necessary to take our body and our sensations into account to explain phenomena that are otherwise inexplicable.

In a study carried out a couple of decades ago, words were presented that could have positive (ie “cake”) or negative (ie “garbage”) content. Participants had to indicate whether the word was “good” or “bad” by moving a joystick . Half of the sample was told that “good” was indicated by moving the lever toward their body and the other half were told that “good” was indicated by a movement away from them.

The “bad” response for each half was established with the opposite movement to the “good” response. A phenomenon of meaning-movement compatibility was observed: the fastest responses occurred in compatible cases, in which “good” was answered by bringing the lever closer and “bad” by moving it away.

This participation of the body and physical sensations in mental processes explains why manual writing facilitates the learning of letters and words, compared to other types of writing, such as that using a keyboard, according to the results of several studies that we explain below.

Ability to remember

For example, a 2021 study compared short- and medium-term recall of words learned by typing or writing them manually. Remembering was better when learning with pencil and paper.

In another study , adults learned new characters (of Asian origin) that they had to reproduce with a pencil or keyboard. At the end of training there were no differences in recall between the two methods, but the keyboard learners forgot much of the material over time.

Some experts justify the advantage of using the pencil by postulating that it is more “ embodied ” (an adjective that we could translate as more “integrated into the body”); That is, it involves a set of more complex and particular sensorimotor processes for each letter. This complexity will generate a more distinctive memory trace and, consequently, memorization and recall will be easier, in the same way that it is easier to remember a two-meter-tall albino than someone with average features.

Mental resources

Another advantage of handwriting is that typing is more expensive in terms of consumption of mental resources. This will cause a shortage to execute word memorization operations. The increase in resource consumption is due to the greater speed at which words are typed. This, in turn, means a greater number of elements to process per unit of time.

The idea of ​​complexity appears in other studies to also explain differences in writing in a second language. Other authors suggest that the greater consumption of resources is also due to the fact that the writing task is more complex when performed by keyboard.

Planning and composition

The writing instrument can also affect the higher levels of writing processing. It is thought that the type of writing sets the temporal rhythm of cognitive processing. If transcription is slow and difficult, it will interfere with the higher processes on which it depends, causing the forgetting of ideas and relevant information.

In several experiments, an improvement in written composition skills (quality, length and fluency of the text) has been verified after training in manual writing skills. In this same sense, a study shows that students plan their texts better when they use pencil and paper than when they use the keyboard.

Longer and better quality texts

On the other hand, it must be recognized that keyboards have also brought us many advantages. For example, some reviews of studies that compare handwritten texts versus those written on a computer state that the latter tend to be longer and have higher quality in composition.

Furthermore, people with reading-writing learning problems are the ones who experience these benefits the most . However, these studies sometimes suffer from a certain experimental rigor that raises certain doubts about their interpretation and generality.

A mind without a body

The Matrix cinematic tetralogy presents the idea of ​​a mind without a body. But a disembodied mind that only exists in the virtual world is like a return to Plato’s cave. The torches that cast shadows on the wall are replaced by computer simulation systems. In real life, the mind carries out its operations linked to the functioning of our entire body.

The idea of ​​a purely symbolic mind, without a body, is closer to our mind when we write with the keyboard (a mechanism that works with minimal sensory involvement), than when we write by hand, since our cognitive system reacts differently in function of the motor and sensory schemes of the experience.

Educational repercussions

These results suggest that eliminating handwriting in school, as seems to be happening in educational systems like Finland , is not a good idea.

Obviously, it is not about not using keyboards, not even during childhood: but we must be attentive to future studies on this topic to bring their conclusions to the educational world as soon as possible.

Author Bios: Javier Marin Serrano is a University Professor. Psychology of Language. Psychology of Thought at the University of Murcia, Miguel Ángel Pérez-Sánchez is a Full Professor of the Department of Basic Psychology and Methodology also at the University of Murcia and Vasylets Olena is an Associate Professor, Faculty of Philology and Communication at the University of Barcelona