A Psychological Defense of Pen and Paper Note Taking

SUPPORTAs a lefty, I’m sympathetic to the move toward digital note-taking. It’s a lot easier for me to type than write, especially when you factor in cruel inventions like the three-ring binder, the spiral-bound notebook, the No. 2 pencil, and the gel ink pen. However, the psychologist in me is forced to come to the defense of physical note taking: paper and pen.

[As a side note: My grade school had “honor roll” for the middle school grades, but we also got a letter grade for penmanship. As a result, I only once made honor roll, in my 8th grade year when I made a focused effort to write VERY carefully. I used a freaking RULER for some letters. As an adult I look back and think the letter grade for penmanship was BS and totally demotivating for a left-handed nerd like myself, although sometimes I am grateful that I can eke out a legible note if I absolutely have to.]

So why would a psychologist recommend taking notes by hand? There are a couple of reasons, including both cognitive and attitudinal evidence for the powerful effect that capturing thoughts in writing can have.

Cognition and Memory

When people write notes by hand, they process and remember information differently than if they take notes by another means like a computer. First, writing by hand helps people learn. Young children show improved neural development that supports reading skills when they practice writing letters by hand. There is also evidence that practicing writing by hand can help people with dyslexia overcome their symptoms. Data from fMRI studies suggests that writing information by hand supports learning on a neural level.

People who take notes by hand also seem to retain information both better and differently. Taking notes using technology often results in a verbatim transcription (possibly because most people type faster than they handwrite, so it’s easier to keep pace with a speaker). Taking notes by hand forces people to paraphrase and condense ideas, which in turn seems to help them remember those ideas better later. It also helps them process the information more deeply, so they truly understand it, while technology-enabled note taking looks more like rote memorization.

Emotions and Attitudes

Writing information by hand can also influence how we process it emotionally. It can change our confidence levels in information, as well as the emotional impact the information has on us.

I will gladly serve as meeting scribe if you color-coordinate your markers to my outfit. #lefty
I will gladly serve as meeting scribe if you color-coordinate your markers to my outfit. #lefty

Psychologist (not race car driver) Richard Petty of the Ohio State University has made a career looking at subtle factors that influence people’s receptivity to arguments. A good overview of Petty’s work (and related contributions) can be found in this review paper, but it’s worth noting how very subtle some of the interventions can be: People are more likely to agree with an argument if you ask them to nod their head repeatedly while listening, or if you get them to simulate a smile by clutching a pencil the long way between their lips. Keep this in mind the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something. Related to handwriting, Petty and his colleagues also found that you can decrease a person’s confidence in an argument by asking them to write it out with their non-dominant hand (Briñol & Petty 2003). What this says to me is that writing causes information to be encoded different in our brains not just from a comprehension and retention perspective, but also emotionally.

There is other evidence that writing out information influences how we process it emotionally. Writing out a narrative about a negative experience can reduce its emotional wallop, perhaps in part because writing forces people to put a logical structure on events (Lyubomirsky, 2007). James Pennebaker, who is perhaps the researcher most well-known for his work on writing and the psyche, recommends writing as a way to cope with trauma–and has found health improvements among people who do it. Interestingly, Lyubomirsky does not recommend writing out happy events, as writing can also temper the positive emotional impact of content. Instead, she suggests mentally replaying happy memories and trying to re-experience them that way, without putting pen to paper.

On the flip side, the appearance of your handwriting can also influence the attitudes other people have about you. Steve Graham is cited in the Wall Street Journal recounting evidence that more neatly written tests earn higher scores than messier ones expressing exactly the same ideas. More usefully, changes in handwriting quality can provide an early sign if a person is suffering from cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Social

I would finally argue that taking notes by hand in a setting like a meeting or a presentation, where there is a live person speaking, strengthens the social connections between the speaker and the audience. It’s easy to get distracted taking notes on a computer or tablet, especially if you have notifications enabled or transition between programs. Multi-tasking draws attention away from the speaker and deprives them of signals like eye contact that normally provide encouragement (this is why when I am speaking to a large group, I usually zero in on one or two people in each major area of the room who are really paying attention, and then make sure to look at them frequently. It gives the audience a sense that I’m looking at them, and it gives me encouragement to briefly connect with people who are responding to me).

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Notes from grad school, when I was evidently more careful about my handwriting.

As handwritten notes become more rare, receiving one becomes more significant and unusual. The recipient is more likely to feel special and perceive the note-writing as having required effort by the writer. Consider this really cool experiment Cristina Vanko tried, where she replaced text messages with photographs of handwritten notes for a week. She reports that she thought more carefully about the messages she sent, and her friends enjoyed receiving them.

I recently had an interesting conversation with co-workers about note-taking after we noticed that we all had physical notebooks for a meeting we were attending. We agreed that we felt taking notes helped us focus on the meeting content and remember the material later. One co-worker said, “I actually throw away my notes right after the meeting–I never need to refer back to them, I just need to make them so I can get them into my brain.” Given what the research says, this may not be a bad strategy at all.

References

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin.

2 thoughts on “A Psychological Defense of Pen and Paper Note Taking”

  1. What are your thoughts regarding the written word just in a digital format – say Microsoft OneNote or Evernote using a pen and tablet?

    I find that I am always (and preferably) taking hand-written notes however because I tend to lose them I have moved to a digitally captured format.
    -steve

    1. Since the mechanics of writing digitally mimic writing on paper, my guess is that it has some of the same psychological benefits of physical note-taking. What would still be missing is location-based memory (e.g. Lower left-hand page). And of course you would gain the ability to organize, as you pointed out.

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