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Monday, September 12, 2011

Thinking Outside the Computer: Longhand and the Brain

Sometimes the ideas just flow better longhand.
In Indiana, schools are no longer required to teach cursive writing. The emphasis, instead, is on typing skills. I keep wondering if this approach will cut off an important route to creative thinking. Of course, students will still be taught to print, but most people will attest that it is much quicker to write in cursive than it is to print each individual letter. (There also seems to be more acceptance of messy script than messy print, which reduces concerns about “getting it to look right.”) Granted, in the computer age many of us can type even faster than we can write in cursive, but is speed the most important factor here?

When I’m brainstorming on a project, I find I think much better when I write by hand than when I try to type things out on a computer. I just feel more creative. It’s much easier to write in the margins, to draw lines out to new thoughts, or even to draw little sketches just because they help me think. The keyboard doesn’t let me do that.

For me, the shift away from precisely-shaped individual letters can actually increase the fluidity of my thoughts and my ability to enter what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls a “flow” state – basically, he means that state of complete absorption and euphoria where you’re “hot” or “in the zone.” The world drops away and you're just writing really good stuff.

Also – ideas often strike me in inconvenient places. In the car, for example, or in the shower.  It’s a lot easier to scribble down an idea on a scrap of paper with one hand (I am never without a handy pen!) than it is to fumble out my phone or some other technological device, open an app that will let me record, and try to type it in.

When I have the time to sit down and focus, I do like using a computer or digital tablet to brainstorm.

I have an old tablet PC, and it records my handwriting faithfully, which is important to me (and sometimes crucial given how messy things get – I have a personal cursive shorthand). I’m still on the fence with the iPad, both because I have to think constantly about keeping my hand off the screen (which may just take more practice – I am borrowing a friend’s) and because most available apps don’t reproduce my scrawl faithfully. (The one that seems to come closest is Penultimate.) And I’m still getting used to the idea of writing with a (shudder) squishy pen. And then there’s the size of the iPad itself – the page size feels like a constraint to me, at least in the Penultimate app. I’ve found that I can push OneNote on my old tablet PC to scroll down and to the side when I need more room, which I always do. (I’m really interested in any input others have on using technologies with handwriting, so please feel free to comment below.)

In any case, I was curious about whether there was any research to back up my feeling that I’m more creative when I’m writing longhand. After a quick search, here’s what I found: one set of neuropsychologists discovered that dealing with handwriting seems to engage the right brain better; another neurologist argues that writing in cursive actually “stimulate[s] brain activity, lead[ing] to increased language fluency.”

Now, before you get too excited about that right-brain reference, do realize that even theorists who argue the importance of right-brain activity in creativity typically emphasize the use of both sides of the brain together. In her amazing book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain, for example, neuroscientist and writer Alice Flaherty says, “creativity requires not just more right hemisphere activity, but a balanced interaction between the right and left hemispheres.” In other words, the balance created by relatively increased right-hemisphere activity is what’s notable in someone who’s thinking creatively. (This makes particular sense for writing, since in most people, language is a left-hemisphere function.)

If you find yourself stuck on your project, try writing or brainstorming longhand. Don’t be afraid to scribble things out or write in the margins. It doesn’t matter whether you do it on a piece of paper with a good old-fashioned pencil or pen, or on a digital slate with handwriting capabilities. And if things are not coming in straight tidy lines, let yourself stop worrying about precise lines of text and try a blank, unlined page so you can write in bursts, connecting things as needed with lines, drawings, and added notes.

And then let me know what happens!

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+


Maryann Miller said...

I knew there was a reason I still like my trusty notebook and use it for all my plotting and planning as I'm writing. A lot of younger writers who grew up with technology do all that with computer programs that let you organize character bios, plot points, etc. I like to scribble all that in a notebook. It's not any harder to flip back and forth in a five-subject notebook than to move in and out of Windows or apps.

Karen Adair said...

I absolutely LOVE writing by hand. Perhaps it was because computers were still making their way into homes at my age, but nonetheless it still works for me. My handwriting stinks, but I can spell and type 120 words a minute. My children are not so fortunate, even with my encouragement. Computers keep spell checking everything for them, and texts make them lazy for punctuation. And those scraps of paper filled with ideas in my purse? Yes, they filled three books that I hope to get published as a series one day. I can type faster than I can write by hand, but my best chapters are the ones I wrote by hand. Thank for the great post!

E. Arroyo said...

Wow...something to think about. I always begin my manuscripts long hand and when I'm stuck I take out paper and pencil. But I never thought how schools are changing.

Bethany K. Mattingly said...

I'm a write by hand to plan kinda gal, too. For some reason seeing the ideas take shape in words and connecting them all together really works for me. I was shocked when I heard Indiana schools weren't teaching cursive. Times change I guess.

Judie said...

I ususally write my first drafts in long hand for 2 reasons. The first is that I am not tempted to go back and fix every sentence all the time. I can move the story forward and fix the 'other stuff' later. The second is something I sadly learned while trying to get a new chapter from one computer to another and the flash-drive failed...when your pen runs out of ink, your paper doesn't implode. :)
Happy writing

Shain Brown said...

I couldn't agree more. One way I tend to solve sticky issues is to grab my favorite pen and spiral, and just write. It helps to free up thoughts and gets me going again. I don't know if printing would get the same creative results. Thanks for sharing.

Marlene Samuels, PhD said...

Carolyn-you may want to check Gabriele Rico's book entitled WRITING THE NATURAL WAY in which she focuses specifically upon the hand-brain connection. Csikszentmihaly's research, CREATIVITY: FLOW .. is a great source as is ON WRITER'S BLOCK: A NEW APPROACH TO CREATIVITY by V. Nelso. I studied creativity with Csikszentmihalyi in graduate school, hence a topic very exciting and close to my heart! Hope this info is helpful.

CPatLarge said...

Ohio is moving to the no-cursive lesson in public school as well, and I find it sad for many reasons, not the least of which is the creativity aspect you mention. It's terrible that schools are so focused on teaching to the test, thanks to NCLB, that they no longer teach things that matter, handwriting being one of them. Were my children still of that age, I would be sure they learned cursive at home if their school ignored it.

What will happen in a generation or two when no one can READ cursive any longer? Think of the archives that will be lost to time.

Anonymous said...

My new pc ia a tablet device. Recently, I've learned to use the pen to write instead of type--and I am delirious with joy.

(My index fingers are likewise estatic, as they tend to get tired of tapping on the screen.)

Now, if only my tablet could somehow smell like a book. Then I should be all set.

Anonymous said...

My new pc ia a tablet device. Recently, I've learned to use the pen to write instead of type--and I am delirious with joy.

(My index fingers are likewise estatic, as they tend to get tired of tapping on the screen.)

Now, if only my tablet could somehow smell like a book. Then I should be all set.

Anonymous said...

My new pc ia a tablet device. Recently, I've learned to use the pen to write instead of type--and I am delirious with joy.

(My index fingers are likewise estatic, as they tend to get tired of tapping on the screen.)

Now, if only my tablet could somehow smell like a book. Then I should be all set.

Anonymous said...

My new pc ia a tablet device. Recently, I've learned to use the pen to write instead of type--and I am delirious with joy.

(My index fingers are likewise estatic, as they tend to get tired of tapping on the screen.)

Now, if only my tablet could somehow smell like a book. Then I should be all set.

Anonymous said...

Even better if I could keep the eager bugger from quadruple posting. :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks for all the thoughts, and Marlene, for the books! (I'm a Csíkszentmihályi so I'm envious you got to study with him!) And Ash, I think your slate is just thrilled to be able to participate!

Karen, your remark really stood out to me, "Computers keep spell checking everything for them, and texts make them lazy for punctuation." The computer is acting as a minor critic, which makes it harder to get into "flow." And though there is some argument that kids enjoy doing higher level tasks (like telling stories) when the computer helps them with lower level tasks (like spelling), grammar is a bear, and I have to say -- I'm glad I didn't learn it through MS Word. I like to defy the rules a bit, that's part of my style (I like sentence fragments and, obviously, asides). I wonder if I'd have developed the same style if the computer were constantly complaining about it along the way. (Maybe I would have...all those complaining English teachers didn't stop me! :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

* I'm a Csíkszentmihályi FAN, so...

Trisha Wooldridge said...

On the more Devil's Advocate side of things...

Much as I do love writing by hand as opposed to typing-and I especially prefer hand-editing, I always do so in print. Throughout grade school, my otherwise-pristine grades were utterly demolished by terrible penmanship grades from 2nd grade through junior high! My husband had the same fate. Both of us are creative and artistic, but having to write in legible cursive kills BOTH of our creative energies. It made writing a nightmare for us during school.

Similarly so, my chiropractor has shared that her son suffers the same thing. He can write some wonderfully creative sentences and demonstrate his reading comprehension if he can print, but once he has to compose in cursive, he freezes because he fixates on just trying to form the words legibly.

Like how people find spellcheck or grammarcheck to be halting (if left on) to the creative juices, the stress of trying to make our hands form cursive letters, knowing our grades will depend on how well we match the pretty loops (not necessarily how legible it is; but how well we match examples) as opposed to the actual thought process or knowledge.

Perhaps we are a minority, but if our state would stop grading on cursive writing, there are certainly a few of us who would breathe a huge collective sigh of relief.

cleemckenzie said...

I'm such a notebook scribbler that I can't imagine thinking without a pen or pencil in hand. And when I'm listening to a lecture, I doodle and take notes like crazy. Helps me focus. Type is expedient, but it lacks elegance. My 2 cents.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

That's interesting, Trisha. My handwriting is pretty bad, but in higher education it's actually seen as a good thing in some cases, believe it or not! I can see how if you'd gotten a lot of flack for your cursive penmanship that it would be hard to be creative in that mode. Thank goodness for printing!

Angie said...

Just yesterday a journalist told me that children who use computer games and do not read books do not physically develop the part of the grey matter that links to empathy. I think this may be close to what you are asking about scientific evidence. I don't have a link to the abstract but if you search for it you may find it.

gagasue said...

Thanks for this article, and for all the interesting comments.

When I went to school, cursive was called "writing." If someone asked, "Do you know how to write?" they were asking about knowledge of cursive. I don't think it is an accident that writing and cursive are synonyms: longhand is such an important tool for writers.

That being said, I don't think there are too many in my generation who are computer nerds, but I am one. There are so many tools—tablets, smart phones, and computers—that, with the right app and peripheral claim to replace the journal. I've tried them all, but I go back each time to the real thing—longhand in a journal, the kind with bound pages and some kind of covering.

Like almost everyone else who wrote comments, keeping a journal is, for me, a must. The faster my brain works, the smaller my writing becomes, reaching the end of the page in a blink, filling the margin space, as if someone or something else were moving my hand. So it is indeed worrisome that my grandchildren do not know cursive, closing off that important avenue to the brain.