Turns Out the Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard


Lay off the keys for better retention.

Girl in the woods drawing in a notebook

Who doesn’t love a to-do list? Writing down your tasks gives us the sense we’re taking control back, that we’re one of those people who actually stays on top of personal admin (even if all do you is write lists about personal admin). But are we the only ones who feel like there’s something a little less satisfying in removing something from your Evernote list than passing a good ol’ Sharpie through it on a piece of paper?

There’s also a cognitive difference in the way you process that information depending on how you record it, say researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

According to neuropsychologists, using a pen and drawing a word has a very different effect on the brain to you typing it out on your laptop.

According to neuropsychologists Audrey van der Meer and Ruud van der Weel, who were charged by Microsoft with the task of testing the cognitive differences between recording learnings via a computer keyboard and writing by hand, using a pen and drawing a word has a very different effect on the brain to you typing it out on your laptop. Because writing a word requires motor skills, the communication between nerve cells in this type of activity is more beneficial for information processing.

“When the students were drawing the word, we saw that the brain was active in larger areas and also in a very particular way that is indicative of being beneficial for learning,” Ruud explained. What’s also more beneficial for cognitive processing, as Audrey points out, is the amount of time it takes to write something.

“When you’re writing, you can’t write so fast, so then you have to kind of process the information and select what to write, so there’s some processing [taking place] instead of merely copying,” she said.

Here are a few more examples of tech that doesn’t do the job better than you IRL.

Treadmill vs the great outdoors
While it’s convenient during testing weather and gym selfies, running on a treadmill as opposed to hitting the pavement isn’t actually comparable in terms of overall wellbeing and fitness levels.

The lack of wind resistance that a runner experiences during outdoor exercise is vastly different to that on a treadmill belt, thus making running on a treadmill on zero incline ‘easier’. Not only that, but the benefits of running outside in nature are also lost: scientists from the University of Exeter found that running outdoors “was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression, and increased energy”.

Books vs Kindle
An increase in screen-based reading thanks to computers and smartphones has led to an increase in ‘non-linear’ reading – you know when you sit down to read a book and your mind is all over the place, flitting between ideas?

“The screen-based reading behaviour is characterised by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and reading more selectively,” a 2005 study out of San Jose explains. Deep reading is the antidote, and is achieved by diving into a paper-based novel and staying there, not allowing distractions to, well, distract you.

Face-to-face vs virtual networking
It will come as no surprise that while virtual networking has its benefits – keeping long-distance pals in touch, for one – it’s by no means as important as getting out there and actually experiencing life with friends. In fact, “Digital devices,” writes Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, “offer the illusion [italics mine] of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

We would love to hear your thoughts