When I was in elementary school, printing was difficult enough for me. Or, more accurately, being patient enough to neatly form each letter was difficult. I just wanted to get my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. When I started to learn cursive, it was an exciting and novel activity for the first day, but it quickly became tedious. Why would I want to sit and write the same letter over and over when I had so many stories and observations that were begging to be written instead? Because I thought cursive writing was a waste of time (and isn’t it usually more difficult to read too?), as soon as my teachers stopped caring, I stopped using it. This article in Psychology Today now has me wondering if that was such a great idea.
The article by William Klemm discusses the cognitive benefits of learning cursive. He writes that, during the process of learning cursive, “the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking.” When we write in cursive, we have to exercise fine motor control over our fingers and pay attention to how we’re forming letters, recruiting brain areas that aren’t used when we keyboard.
A lot of the benefits of writing cursive also extend to printing: strokes must be located relative to each other, the sizes, form, and features of each letter must be remembered, and categorization skills are developed. However, cursive writing brings some additional benefits because “the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.”
These observations about the benefits of cursive are really interesting in the context of enactivism – the idea that one’s mind is organized by his interactions with the environment. (To me, this is almost the same thing as embodied cognition, except that where embodied cognition emphasizes the body with which we act, enactivism emphasizes the actual acting.) The physical act of writing seems to play a facilitatory role in coming up with ideas. In a study of children from grades 2-6, Virginia Bernignger at the University of Washington found that they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than with a keyboard. While this could be taken as a sign that children are bad typists, the argument is that the ideas emerged via motor movements.
The study of haptics examines the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain functions. If researchers are right that the act of writing helps form representations of letters when children are learning to read and write, I wonder if our letter representations are somehow altered or degraded if we later elect to replace handwriting with typing?
Another sort of tangential connection is the suggestion I’ve heard by many educators to physically rewrite notes when trying to memorize them, as opposed to typing them. Somehow, the tedious act of forming the letters facilitates stronger memories of the materials. Aside from the fact that, if true, these are helpful hints for education, the apparent cognitive impacts of handwriting also speak to the inseparability of our bodies and our minds, even in seemingly mundane cases such as handwriting vs. typing.