Write, don’t type. Efficiency isn’t everything

For the first time, I decided to open my insights page to a contributing writer. His name is Jacob A. Stewart. Due to his insightful feedback on a recent LinkedIn post of mine, I offered this section as a platform for him to expand on his thoughts.
Jacob A. Stewart Bio »

When preparing for meetings and taking notes, it might seem more efficient to take advantage of your typing ability. However, forgoing the computer and picking up the pen will bring about more engagement with your clients and better active listening, which will lead to improved long-term memory.

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s first entrepreneurs, taught that time was one of our most important assets, and espoused industry and frugality as the means to success. As Bill Gates put it, “The most important speed issue is convincing everyone that the company’s survival depends on moving as fast as possible.”

Many wise inventors have capitalized on this desire to save time. A not-so-well-known example is C.L. Sholes, who is responsible for inventing the typewriter, as well as the famously inefficient (and purposely so) “qwerty” keyboard layout. Nevertheless, P.G. Hubert, a French-American architect, claimed the invention saved “40 minutes out of every hour,” compared with the pen.

However, the short-term desire to save time can often lead to wasting it long-term. For example, if the race for efficiency causes a business to overlook things like customer satisfaction or the importance of a quality reputation, it can drive returning customers away and waste both time and money. 

The drive for efficiency can also cause businesses to lose the benefits of being composed of and dealing with real, living people.

Use Your Brain. It Will Thank You

Inventions, for all the efficiency they bring, tend to reduce the need for humans to use their brains and make them less dependent on their memories. This is why Plato hated the invention of writing, which he ironically expressed in writing. 

In Plato’s day, people wrote by hand. In the era of the computer, however, we can write much quicker and take advantage of the writing of billions of others right at our fingertips. It’s not hard to imagine how the Greek philosopher might feel about that. 

However, there are some not-well-known benefits to writing by hand that are often forgotten in the rush for efficiency. For a business professional, this could change the way you prepare for meetings and take notes. For those who are also lifelong students, it may not come as a surprise, as the educational system has emphasized taking notes by hand for years. 

The primary reason is to help students better remember information as they prepare for future tests. Studies from the University of Tokyo, Princeton University, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and others have confirmed that paper-and-pencil notetaking does seem to lead to better learning outcomes. 

The Benefits of Handwriting Don’t Stop At Learning

Because handwriting forces you to be brief, it encourages you to write things in your own words, make connections, and expand upon your thoughts later.

And that connection is ESSENTIAL when it comes to long-term potentiation.

What is long-term potentiation, you might ask? It is essentially couples therapy for the tiny cells known as neurons that make up your brain. 

Handwriting Helps Neurons Communicate Better

Improved communication between your neurons is important in moving short-term (and working) memory into long-term storage. 

According to the Queensland Brain Institute, “Memory is the reactivation of a specific group of neurons, formed from persistent changes in the strength of connections between [them].” The difference between short and long-term memory, furthermore, is that the latter involves “lasting increases… in synaptic strength.”

Synapses are where “one neuron sends a message to another neuron,” according to Khan Academy. The “talking” neuron has a long appendage called an axon that transmits electrical information, causing the release of chemicals into a gap between the two neurons. These chemicals are then taken up by one of the receiving neuron’s shorter appendages called a dendrite, which causes the electrical signal to continue. 

Because handwriting involves additional fine motor skills, more synapses are activated. Because more synapses are activated, they are strengthened, eventually leading to better long-term memory. Each neuron can have up to 15,000 of these synapses, according to Dr. Sean Brotherson, Ph.D.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, NMDA receptors are the “predominant molecular device for controlling synaptic plasticity and memory function.” These receptors act as operations managers for your brain. They make your neurons better and more receptive listeners at these synapses.

Handwriting Promotes Active Listening, Which is Better than Speed

There is a real temptation to try to document every single word or thought uttered by our clients, investors, employees, employers, teachers, etc. Ultimately, this aim is fruitless, as we forget around 40% of new information after about 24 hours, and for good reason

Handwriting forces you to prioritize more efficiently. According to neurology professor Dr. Scott A. Small, M.D., Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University, handwriting “helps us prioritize, think better, make decisions, and be more creative.” For your notes to be useful, you have to actively think about the information you are hearing, condense it, and associate it with other things you know or that have already been mentioned. It’s called abbreviation. 

That association is a characteristic aspect of semantic memory, the memory of “meaning, understanding, general knowledge about the world, and other concept-based knowledge unrelated to specific experiences,” according to the Handbook of Clinical Neurology.

In a nutshell, it is the storehouse of (mostly) factual information you remember and can use to form new connections in your brain, modify old ones, and recall things you have previously learned, all in order to “settle into a solution that represents the specific knowledge of a concept,” according to the Encyclopedia of the Human Brain

Abbreviation also allows you to make a better connection with others. The focus becomes less on every single word explicitly spoken, but also on the emotional context, body language, location, etc.- all of which provide cues to later recall the information you learned. 

A similar trick to recall past information using cues is known as a “memory palace,” although it unfortunately only works for simple information. The Ulster Medical Journal attributes this tool to the ancient Greek Simonides of Ceos.

Handwriting Promotes Two more Types of Memory

Episodic memory is the “conscious recollection of events that were previously experienced” in your life, according to the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.  A conversation you had with a colleague praising her for an idea that cut company costs by 5%, or how nervous someone was at the company lunch after he learned he was going to be a father, are examples of episodic memory. Episodic memory helps you frame events in context. 

Taking notes by hand helps you revisit the meeting room where you took the notes. Even if it is just in your head, you can better recall the context of the notes and have an easier time remembering the specific information given. 

The other type of memory is conditioning, which happens when your feelings about one thing spread to something neutral when they are constantly paired together. For example, you are conditioned to associate money with what you can buy with it. 

Synchronous activity between neurons leads them to wire together, so when our brains register that green piece of paper as money and purchase something of intrinsic value with it, eventually, receiving money would stimulate some of the same neurons as receiving the intrinsically valuable item. 

Conditioning in this way helps evoke the feelings or associations that can then strengthen your recollection of previous memories.

Handwriting Promotes Synchronous Activity and Procedural Memory

Both typing and handwriting involve remembering how to string letters together to form words within cohesive sentences, according to the grammar rules in your particular language. They also involve remembering varying connotations of seemingly synonymous words. 

Ideally, typing requires remembering where the letters are on your keyboard and being able to direct the movement of your fingers to hit them in a certain order.

Handwriting, however, involves being able to direct your fingers and hand to make the complex movements necessary to form all the letters in your language’s alphabet. It also involves the artistic flourishes and embellishments of your particular style, which may carry subtle emotional weight. Writing in cursive adds another layer of complexity. Overall, this requires an enormous amount of synchrony between different systems in the brain.

Researchers in Norway have found that the greater involvement of the senses and procedural memory in handwriting are associated with synchronized theta waves in the parietal cortex (the part of your brain involved in sensation) and the frontal cortex (involved in movement, logic, planning, etc.) Typing, on the other hand, was associated with desynchronized waves of activity. 

Synchronized activity means the neurons will coordinate their activity better in the future, and begin to “wire” together As discussed above, this synchrony develops new synapses and boosts memory. 

Regardless, when deciding between the computer or the pen, the latter seems to hold many benefits you ought to consider before walking into your next meeting. 

Efficiency is great, but sometimes it is better to just slow down and take advantage of the fact that you are working with human beings. In the end, handwriting makes better use of your brain. And using your brain is better for your business. 

Author: Jacob A. Stewart

Jacob Stewart

Jacob A. Stewart is a junior neuroscience major at IUPUI. He has been writing for The Campus Citizen newspaper since Fall of 2021, and recently took on the position of Campus Editor. He intends on going to medical school to become a pediatric neurologist. In his free time, he enjoys running and playing the piano, but not at the same time. 

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