Has anyone else noticed the surging number of people writing in public? In London, where I walk beside the River Thames every day, I’ve become increasingly aware of people sitting on benches, writing. Not playing with their phones or ipads, but writing by hand in note books and on paper.
I began lamenting the loss of hand-writing a couple of years ago when I was trawling through the archive of a well-known painter, reading hundreds of her century-old letters. They seemed so much more intimate than the emails I routinely dash off. Unlike emails, these beautifully preserved letters (each one in its original stamped envelope) also had perfume (enigmatically musty), texture (nib scratches on silk-thin paper) as well as expressive doodles and marginalia. Inspired, I bought myself an ink pen and some letterhead and began writing letters. Today I have a pen pal (a nonagenarian living in remote Norway) with whom I exchange correspondence.
Picking up a pen and writing on paper made me see how much I’d lost in switching wholesale to a screen and keyboard. So it came as no surprise to find a growing body of evidence suggesting that writing by hand is good for our brains. In one study, researchers found that students taking notes by hand (as opposed to on a screen) subsequently answered questions more accurately. They speculated that this was because instead of transcribing verbatim the students had to process the information and find their own shorthand words in order to keep up with the lecturer. Examination grades of students writing by hand improved by 3% over their keyboard colleagues. Psychologist, Dr Dehaene, believes that when we write, ‘a unique neural circuit is automatically activated’ which enables us to learn and absorb information more effectively.
Brain scans show that handwriting activates specific areas of our brain, working pathways that affect not only how efficiently we learn but how clearly we remember. Two American psychologists conducted a series of experiments in which they also found the process of learning was improved when hand-writing was used instead of typing. They suggested that the slower process of handwriting enables us to reflect and process information in such a way that not only do we understand it better but we encode it more deeply into our memories.
Handwriting also activates the motor memory, prompting psychologist, Dr Maria Konnikova, to suggest that ‘we can help prevent Alzheimer’s by handwriting.’ Instead of bashing at keys, our fingers and hands have to perform more complex movements when we write with a pen.
In another study, researchers found that people uses enhanced vocabulary when they wrote by hand (no low-hanging emoticons to pluck at). By spending more time finding the right word, we express ourselves more succinctly while expanding our vocabulary and – as a result – exercising our brain muscle. And finally, researchers have speculated that cursive note-taking leads to closer human connections. Dr Oppenheimer, psychologist at the University of California, gives the example of a doctor who takes notes by hand and subsequently builds more rapport with his patient than a colleague using a laptop. If there was ever a time for building human connections, it’s in today’s climate of social distancing.
My friend, Clare Pooley, recently explored the topic of loneliness, human connection and hand-writing in her newly published novel, The Authenticity Project (not to be confused with our Age-Well Project), an uplifting read recently named by The Independent as one of its Top Ten comfort reads for these turbulent times. It tells the story of a London Cafe owner who finds a humble green exercise book abandoned on a table. Inside, someone has hand-written a truth about their life. Clare dreamt up the plot during a severe bout of insomnia in the days when screens didn’t exist. She still believes that handwriting is more enticing and mysterious than type can ever be.
I’ve certainly found the process of letter-writing infinitely more fulfilling than thumping out an email. But there’s another reason for this: during the pandemic our lives have become more and more screen-based. We shop online, we sing with our choirs online, we meet online, we do yoga online, our language/cooking/art classes are online. Our eyes (and our bodies) can only take so much screen time, before they beg for mercy. They do this by giving us digital eye strain, sometimes called computer vision syndrome. According to Barbara Horn, president of the American Optometric Association, ‘Our eyes were not designed to use computers, especially for long periods of time, and as a result, many people who spend long hours reading or working on a computer experience eye discomfort and vision problems. Focusing on tiny type for hours on end can cause eye strain, fatigue and headaches. Staring at screens for long periods can also leave eyes parched, red and gritty-feeling.’
Endless screen time has also left many of us with back and neck ache. When we write by hand, we move more and are less likely to have our head thrust so far – and so statically – forward. Because hand-writing is a slower process, we pause more frequently, looking up as we seek out the right word, or even getting up to find a dictionary.
No wonder then that so many of us are returning to pen and paper. I was delighted to write to our two book winners last week. It reminded me of my teenage years when I had an American pen-pal called Barbara who I never met but wrote to every month.
For me, hand-writing has been one of the saving graces of the current pandemic. Like many people, I’ve kept a sporadic journal, scrawling a few inky lines before I attempt sleep. I’ve found the process of emptying myself onto a page entirely therapeutic. Knowing it may also help deter Alzheimer’s has been an added bonus.
But writing in the evening may also help us sleep better. Sleep scientists have been rigorous in their exhortations not to use screens in the evening, particularly at the moment when so many of us are finding deep, restful sleep almost impossible. Replacing our screen with a pen and notebook has been found to improve the quality and duration of our sleep, but not only because it reduces our exposure to blue light at a critical time for our circadian rhythms. One study found the most effective thing to write was a to-do list for the following day. People who did this reported fewer night wakenings. It was a small study (read more here) but why not try it for yourself?
For anyone wanting a partial return to cursive, I recommend investing in an ink pen correctly sized for your hand and a joy to hold. Ink pens adapt themselves to their owners, getting to ‘know’ their owner’s touch and press. Apparently lending our pens to others can leave them scratchy and leaky (so I’ve been told), so keep it for your hand only.
To enter our prize draw for a signed, hardback copy of Clare Pooley’s heart-warming novel, The Authenticity Project, please email us at email@example.com with the words Pooley Please. The draw closes at 6pm UK time, on 27 July, when a single winner will be randomly chosen.
In the meantime, dust down your old pen and write a letter to someone you’re missing. Your brain will thank you for it. More importantly, so will the recipient!
Finally, I’ve been making these stuffed red peppers during lockdown. They can be eaten warm or cold, and feel free to make them your own by adding any favourite ingredients (chopped olives, anchovies, a few chick peas all spring to mind).
SIMPLE STUFFED PEPPERS for 4
- 4 red peppers, cut in half, seeds removed, stalks on
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- I packet of pre-cooked lentils (approx. 200g)
- 2 red onions (or any onions or leeks you have), roughly chopped
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 8 sundried tomatoes
- 2 tbsps tomato puree
- Herbs (I used a tsp each of dried oregano and thyme, but fresh rosemary would also work)
- Fresh parsley or basil and crumbled feta (or any cheese you like) to serve
Saute the chopped onion in the olive oil with the fennel seeds for a few minutes or until the onion is translucent.
Tip in the lentils, snip in the sundried tomatoes, add the herbs, tomato puree and a splash of water if the mixture seems very dry.
Mix well, heat through then spoon the mixture into the peppers. Drizzle with extra oil, season and roast for an hour at 180, or until the sides of the peppers are soft and slightly charred. Check half way through and if the lentils look as if they’re drying out on top, drizzle over some of the pan juices.
Top with fresh chopped parsley and cheese, or a dollop of plain yoghurt if you prefer. Serve with something green.
Laura Young MBE says
My mother, was a researcher on the Liddle WW1 Letter archive and annotated what many people wrote about.
She has said for years that the loss of a weekly letter home or to a friend has contributed to modern mental overload. A handwritten correspondence helped you process your week as a letter usually includes; this what I have done and what went well and what was a disaster – often turning to humour to recount a tale. Then, what Things to which we are looking forward and what is to come that we are nervous about.
It is so good for us, to process our lives in this way.
Find a way of having a weekly handwritten correspondence with a friend as it will make you feel so much better about life. Plus you have the added benefit of a letter that can be treasured, carried around and reread arriving through your letter box
One feels so much more connected to a person seeing their handwriting than seeing printed text.
A letter arriving in the post gives a little moment of joy.
I wholeheartedly agree.
Letter writing is something we should all do much more. So much benefit all around.
I had better get my fountain pen out!
Annabel Streets says
I completely agree, Laura. I really look forward to receiving letters and cards. The convenience of email is great but it can never compare to the profound intimacy of a letter. And yes, reading through old letters (particularly WW1 letters, I imagine) is a very moving experience, a privilege. I can’t imagine future generations will have the same sense of joy and poignancy when they read through all our rushed-off emails! But who knows…? Thanks for your comment.
Rosamund jonkers says
I regularly make a similar recipe, sometimes using aubergines for the shell. By precooking the shell, brushed with olive oil, in the microwave, while the stuffing is being cooked, the cooking time can be reduced to about 20 mins. One hour in the oven uses a lot of electricity. Also, microwave cooking of vegetables retains more of their goodness as has been shown in tests.
Annabel Streets says
That’s a great idea, Rosamund. Thanks for sharing it…
Victoria Jones says
Thank you both for this and other articles! My 96 year old mother passed away very recently. Very glad for her, tremendously sad to have her gone. I found writing cards to my friends who knew her and met her, by hand, and posting these off, very much a part of the healing process. I just could not put those words in a text or email… and have spent quiet time sorting out cards and envelopes and buying stamps so that I can continue the practice. And I spoke at her funeral, having written my words by hand… and reading my own words from a book, rather than from my phone… very important to me. Thank you for this fascinating insight… it will encourage me to continue writing to friends and family… Victoria
Annabel Streets says
So sorry to hear about your mother, Victoria. But glad that her legacy is, in part, your return to writing. Yes, I often send cards now, and – as you point out – the whole process from writing to posting is therapeutic. Even the trip to the post box is something I rather enjoy. Perhaps, between us, we can keep Royal Mail alive! Keep writing and thanks for the comment…
I wholly agree about hand writing. I always collected stationery and am now sending many handwritten cards to people. They like to receive them especially when most post is marketing or bills.
I have a legible hand and have always taken notes by hand in a series of notebooks kept in my handbag.
Good to know handwriting is good for the brain. A bonus.
Annabel Streets says
Yes, it’s always encouraging to know that something we’re already doing is helping us! Thanks for the comment…
Marie Treacey says
I always hae a notebook on the go I write ideas into it as they come to me it’s a follow on from returning to college where ideas for essays and articles would come to mind and then vanish so writing it down was very useful I also handwrote all my lecture notes and still do loved the article thank you it’s good to know i’m doing something for my future health eg my brain after a stroke in 2018 I am doing ll I can to keep brain healthy.
Thank you annabel
Annabel Streets says
Thanks for your comment, Marie. Keep up the writing!