Your cheating heart

Can you think better when you’re typing?

In today’s New York Times, there’s an Education article talking about the demise of proper cursive handwriting among high-schoolers. Computers have drastically reduced the amount a student writes by hand, so much that the skill, “like an unused muscle”, is pretty much dead by your senior year. But there’s an interesting question buried in this piece: What is the cognitive effect of handwriting versus typing?

According to one researcher, kids who were bad at handwriting did worse in tests — not because they were stupid, but because the mere act of enforced handwriting chewed up too much processing power, leaving them little left over to focus on the intellectual task:

Professor Graham’s study of elementary school pupils indicated a link between their difficulty in handwriting and weaknesses in the grammar and content of their compositions. One reason, quite simply, is that a brain struggling to make a hand form letters does not devote enough attention to more advanced tasks.

This, the reporter suggests, is a good reason why it’s best to leave keyboard-trained kids at the keyboard. After all, the keyboard dominates most of the professional jobs they’ll hope to get. And they perform better while typing, since it’s their natural output device:

In high school and college, any student without a 24/7 laptop cannot hope to keep accurate notes on a lecture course. Kate Gladstone, a handwriting specialist based in Albany, estimates that while a student needs to jot down 100 legible words a minute to follow a typical lecture, someone using print can manage only 30. “That’s fine for class,” she said, “if the class is first grade.”

For me, there’s an even deeper question: Are there any qualitative differences — in the way you think, create, or express yourself — between handwriting and typing?

When I’m reporting a story and taking notes, I often talk on the phone and type notes; since I type about 70 words a minute, I can catch nearly every word. When I’m out in the field and reporting, I use a notepad, so I’m forced to be much more selective in what I write down. In essence, I begin the editing process — redacting the data, picking useful bits — while taking handwritten notes. When I’m typing, I don’t need to make those choices; I simply record everything, and figure out later on what’s useful and what’s not.

Here’s another example: I never write entire pieces of journalism by hand, but I do sometimes make outlines on notepaper. And I’ve noticed distinct differences between the two modes. When I’m thinking about the logical connections between different parts of my argument, for example, I’ll draw big swooping arrows connecting points together — something that can’t be done easily in a word processor. In a word processor, however, I’m able to use the classic DJ-style writing technique — cranking out chunks of text and remixing them via cut-and-paste.

I once got in an argument with Frank Wilson, author of the excellent book The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture, about the cognitive impact of typing versus writing. He didn’t think there was any difference between the two. He also didn’t buy my argument that typing has aesethetic pleasures of its own, which is why so many geeks prefer keyboards with a distinct “click” on the keys.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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