EEG study finds brain activity differences between handwriting and typing

New research has analyzed brainwave patterns in both children and young adults while they wrote by hand and as they typed on a keyboard. The results revealed distinctly different brain patterns between the activities, leading the researchers to suggest learning is more effective when it is accompanied by handwriting.

Over the last few decades the prominence of digital devices in educational settings has rapidly expanded. Tablet computing and typing on digital devices has proliferated in classrooms, often at the expense of tasks that traditionally led to the honing of cursive handwriting skills.

Audrey van der Meer, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has been investigating the brain activity differences between handwriting and typewriting for several years. A compelling 2017 study from van der Meer and colleagues used high-density electroencephalogram (EEG) to compare brain activity in 20 university students while they typed out words and drew pictures.

That prior study saw brainwave patterns previously hypothesized as optimal for learning appear when the subjects were handwriting but not when the subjects were typing. The new research follows on from that study, examining the differences in brain activity between drawing, cursive writing and typewriting in both children and young adults.

“For young adults, we found that when writing by hand using a digital pen on a touchscreen, brain areas in the parietal and central regions showed event-related synchronized activity in the theta range,” the researchers write in the newly published study. “Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning.”

When the young adult subjects were drawing, the researchers saw activation in similar brain regions, however, the study does note the activation patterns were slightly different. The study says, “the neural processes involved in handwriting and drawing seem to be more similar to each other compared to typewriting.” Brain activity while typing notably differed from both handwriting and drawing.

Interestingly, these brain activity patterns were similar in the children studied, but seen to a lesser extent. The researchers suggest this finding affirms the value of making sure children are exposed to all three behaviors – writing, drawing and typing – in order to strengthen each individual brain circuit.

“Learning to write by hand is a bit slower process, but it’s important for children to go through the tiring phase of learning to write by hand,” explains van der Meer. “The intricate hand movements and the shaping of letters are beneficial in several ways. If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses. It’s important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible. I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I’d take notes by hand during a lecture.”

The researchers ultimately make clear they are not at all calling for a prohibition on digital devices in educational settings. Instead, the study attempts to clearly distinguish the differences in brain activity between the three behaviors, and offers the suggestion drawing and handwriting are distinctly different cognitive tasks compared to typewriting, and these neural processes should be equally nurtured in educational settings.

“The present study shows that the underlying brain electrical activity related to handwriting, typewriting, and drawing is different,” the researchers conclude. “Hence, being aware of when to use which strategy is vital, whether it is to learn new conceptual materials or to write long essays. Even though there are underlying differences in the three strategies, it is important to note that the strategies are all cognitive tasks, each serving their own benefits.”

The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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