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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.