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Why pen and paper will always be best

Whether for therapeutic purposes or simply to stay organised, Abi Jackson ponders writing by hand


Benefits: writing by hand is good for us on many levels

Benefits: writing by hand is good for us on many levels

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Benefits: writing by hand is good for us on many levels

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).

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. Counselling Directory member Dee Johnson 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.

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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 thinking or saying it out loud. But once we 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 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 on to the paper, and it makes a tangible connection between your emotions and yourself… When it's typed out, it's standardised, it's depersonalised. When your brain recognises your own handwriting, it gives that real visceral and emotional connection."

Building trust

Johnson thinks it's a massive shame so many people lack confidence in their handwriting, often after being told it was 'messy' at school.

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".

Journaling, 'morning pages' or brain-dumps - where you sit with your pen and just let the words flow for a period of time each day are hailed for a host of - creativity, mindfulness and therapeutic benefits.

"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. 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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