From memory-boosts to channelling calm, why old-school pen and paper will always be best

Woman sat outdoors writing in a paper diary
Woman sat outdoors writing in a paper diary
9:30am, Wed 07 Apr 2021
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If you’re still using a paper diary, always have a notebook nearby, and like your gratitude lists scribbled in ink, you don’t need research to tell you that writing stuff down is great.

Just recently though, a study led by neuroscientist Kuniyoshi Sakai at University of Tokyo found students who took notes by hand had better recall than those who used phones or tablets. Participants were quizzed an hour later, to see how much they could remember from their notes, with MRI used to measure their brain activity.

Those who’d handwritten their notes showed ‘significantly’ more activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualisation and the hippocampus (important for memory and navigation).

Summarising the findings, Professor Sakai said: “Paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall.” The information is being processed and stored more widely, which Sakai believes may not just be useful for studying, but for learning and creativity in general.

From journaling to keeping notes and to-do lists, we’re big fans of putting pen to paper…

A sense of control

There are loads of reasons many of us still love to write by hand. For some, keeping a physical log of everything is part of the appeal, for others, it’s an effective way to stay organised and be more mindful and creative. Writing down my to-do lists brings a sense of calm and control – and means I don’t forget important things as often, which shaves a chunk of avoidable stress out of my life. The tangibility and being able to see everything at a glance – and cross things out/move them/add notes – is all part of the package.

Counselling Directory member Dee Johnson, a counselling psychotherapist, CBT and mindfulness practitioner, is a huge fan of the old-school pen and paper approach and still uses it as much as possible in her own life and admin, as well as with clients and patients.

“The writing slows things down, so it’s making you more mindful and aware of what you’re taking in. And we know the physical act of actually writing creates a motor memory – that’s why when we’re teaching children how to write, or even somebody who’s had a stroke, just re-writing and shaping those letters jogs that part of the brain and memory bank,” she says.

Emotional connection

Think about when you’re trying to remember how to spell a word – sometimes, the sequence of letters can escape us when we’re simply thinking it or saying it out loud. But once we grab a pen and jot them down, we recall the spelling. “That’s the motor memory; you’ve built a neural pathway and it becomes that physical act of doing it,” says Johnson.

The therapist, who also works in addiction services at Priory, regularly asks patients to do an exercise where they write out their own life story. Of course, sometimes disability, illness or physical differences might mean using technology is a more suitable option. But when handwriting is possible, Johnson says the effects can be powerful – not least in terms of jogging memory. “They’ll often say, ‘So much came back!’

There’s creative and emotional levels too. “[When we handwrite], we’re being more considered about what we’re putting onto the paper, and it makes a tangible connection between your emotions and yourself… When it’s typed out, it’s a standardised format, it’s depersonalised. When your brain recognises your own handwriting, it knows you’ve made an effort, and it gives that real visceral and emotional connection.”

It’s something we can also get with other people’s handwriting. “When somebody sends you a card, what’s the first thing you look at? You read the handwritten bit, because that’s where the emotion and true sentiment is. Even just seeing that person’s name. There is a joy when we recognise someone else’s handwriting, because it’s a symbol of that emotional connection we have with them.”

Building trust

Johnson thinks it’s a massive shame so many people – especially adults – lack confidence in their handwriting, often after being told it was ‘messy’ at school, and therefore might miss out on this “fabulously freeing activity”. Tuning into the purpose and benefits of writing, rather than being bogged down by perfectionism, “builds confidence – we build a bit more trust in ourselves, and I think there is something in that, building that inner confidence and inner trust”.

giphy.gifJournaling, ‘morning pages’ or brain-dumps – where you sit with your pen and just let the words flow for a period of time each day, or however often – are hailed for a host of creativity, mindfulness and therapeutic benefits. Even if you never read any of it back, the process can be rewarding and helpful, especially in terms of getting thoughts ‘out’ if they have a tendency to swirl in endless loops in your head. And some people may find it useful to re-read their worry lists, says Johnson.

“Sometimes I get my patients to write down their ‘what ifs’, and if we get to the end of the day and it hasn’t happened, you scrawl it out. Even the physical act of marking that out, didn’t happen, instead of just leaving it in your head and letting it grow [is helpful].

“And you’re refocusing and regrouping, because if you let those things run away, they just catastrophise. When you’re writing, it’s bringing you back to what’s actually going on, instead of what my scattered thoughts are doing. Then you build up a trust process – ‘Ah, ok, this stuff passes. It’s transient. I’m not stuck like this’.”

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