Brain News You Can Use (April 2013)

By Gail Sanders Durgin, Ph.D., BCN-Fellow, QEEGT

How Handwriting Affects the Brain

Many children receive very little instruction in handwriting in current school curriculum. Young students are still taught to write their letters and their names, but many of these children resist practice. New research has shown that there is great value in teaching and maintaining the skill of handwriting. Writing by hand helps to improve the development of ideas and expression and assists in fine-motor development.

Some researchers believe that practicing handwriting is a good cognitive exercise that helps adults keep their mind sharp. Adult can benefit from manually writing new symbols in a different language or symbols for mathematics or music. The manual practice helps with recognition of the symbols. Changes in handwriting can be an early diagnostic tool for neurological disorders. "Having adults retrain their handwriting skills can be a useful cognitive exercise," says P. Murali Doraiswamy, a neuroscientist at Duke University.

In a study at Indiana University, children were scanned in functional MRI. The kids looked at letters before and after receiving different letter-learning instruction. The children who had practiced hand printing the letters experienced enhanced neural activity that was more adult-like than the children who had just looked at the letters. Karin James says, "It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time."

Virginia Berninger from the University of Washington says that handwriting requires using sequential strokes to form the letter while using the keyboard the whole letter is selected by touching a key. Brain imaging has shown that the sequential finger movements "activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory – the system for temporarily storing and managing information."

A related study showed that in grades two, four and six, children were able to write more words, write faster, and express more ideas when they wrote essays by hand versus a keyboard.

Handwriting is also important in testing. In situations where students have to hand write, such as the essay section of the SAT, scorers can give sections of the essay an "illegible" score of 0 if they are unable to read the writing. Studies have shown that the legibility of the handwriting can have an effect on test scores. Steve Graham from Vanderbilt University says, "There is a reader effect that is insidious. People judge the quality of your ideas based on your handwriting."

The renewed interest in handwriting skills has prompted a boost in practice in electronic gadgets. Adults can convert handwriting with finger or stylus to text using an application. Children can practice writing letter on an iPhone app that instructs the child to write letters and rewards correct movements with cheers. An iPad application has children trace the letters on the screen.

Even with the current technology available, writing is good for the brain and enhances communication in people of all ages.


Gail Sanders Durgin, Ph.D. has been providing neurofeedback and biofeedback at Neurofeedback Associates Inc since 2000. She previously worked in mental health and developmental disabilities services for 18 years. Dr. Durgin offers the most advanced treatment services in the field in order to offer individualized client centered solutions to improve brain and life performance.

Published in Natural Triad, April, 2013


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