Thinking on Paper

How handwriting makes you more creative, sharp, and emotionally stable

After steel, there is no more influential material in human history than paper.

Before paper, the Chinese used to write on bamboo, which was heavy; and silk, which was expensive. The invention of writing paper was revolutionary because it was both affordable and light than its predecessors.

Some historians speculate that paper was the key element in global advancement. According to this theory, Chinese culture was less developed than the west in ancient times because bamboo, while abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus (European ancestor of paper).

Chinese culture advanced during the Han dynasty due to the invention of paper and Europe progressed during the Renaissance due to the introduction of paper and the Gutenberg printing press.

Some major developments of the Renaissance include astronomy, humanist philosophy, the vernacular language in writing, painting and sculpture technique, world exploration, and, in the late Renaissance, Shakespeare's works.

With the invention of paper, academics thrived and, literacy shot up. Paper turned out to be a time machine that could hold and transport one’s ideas and feelings for hundreds of years in continuity. It was a revolutionary product, not only due to its political and academic significance but also because of its cognitive and psychological importance.

Writing vs Typing

Writing on paper is a scientifically proven way to improve memory, induce creativity, and maintain emotional stability. Typing might have replaced handwriting in the professional world, yet schools have kept a conservative stand on the same.

“Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought,” says Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva.

Paper, unlike the display of our tablets and laptops, is a tangible object. It gives us more graphic freedom: you can write on either side, keep to set margins or not, superimpose lines or distort them, fold it, tear it, emboss it, stick it.

“What we want from writing – and what the Sumerians wanted – is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts.”

—Anne Tubrek, author of Uncertain Future of Handwriting

Write to Recall

In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his groundbreaking study Über das Gedächtnis ("On Memory"). In it, he stated that if we don’t make an effort to retain a piece of information, we will lose it—exponentially.

Writing makes the process of note-making more effortful, and that is good for retention.

When you write something, whether via an electronic medium or on paper, you allocate that information a rigid space in your visual memory. When you handwrite something, you activate both—your visual memory and your spatial memory.

According to Wikipedia: Spatial memory is a form of memory responsible for the recording of information about one's environment and spatial orientation.

When you handwrite, you get to decide how much space you leave between each word, whether you give margins or not, how large or small you keep the font, in which position you keep the notebook. All of this activates your hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for spatial memory, and that is how handwriting helps you retain more information.

An Experiment…

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California asked a group of students to take notes at a lecture using pen and paper while another group used laptops.

The experiment found that the students who used a laptop did not understand the lecture as well as those who wrote their notes out by hand. The researchers hypothesized that this was because students who wrote notes by hand had to process what the lecturer was saying and, in effect, summarize what was being said to keep up with the lecture.

Additionally, they found that laptop note-takers had a “tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim,” which mean they were less likely to process information into their own words, thus preventing them from truly understanding what was being taught.

Write to Get New Ideas

Writing generates ideas. By reflecting, connecting the dots, and cross-pollinating seemingly unrelated ideas, we transform and realign fundamental ideas into meaningful information.

Writing is the first step to manifest a plan in action. I always sit with a pen and paper in all of my business meetings, scribbling and noting bits and pieces of information. Paper is also where our team at DOT fairs brainstorms.

A blank piece of paper is more than a space to communicate ideas and expressions, it is a place to think, rethink, and unthink.

"The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world."

—Malcolm Gladwell

Trust me, I had no idea about the structure of this essay, all my thoughts and ideas magically align themselves the moment I open my notebook. Not only writing calibrates my ideas, but it also helps me to get new ones. It is magically unrealistic.

According to a study performed at Indiana University, the mere act of writing by hand unleashes creativity not easily accessed in any other way.

"All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down."

—Fredrich Nietzsche

Write to Talk

Writing is an effective cure for loneliness. There will be moments in your life when you will find it difficult to communicate your feelings, times like these can be less challenging in the company of pen and paper.

In my essay, World’s Best Listener, I advocated for the practice of journaling for the same reason. The mere act of summarizing your day on a piece of paper makes you more emotionally athletic, it helps you to endure the suffering you chose for yourself.

The emotional benefits of journaling are scientifically proven, it’s not just a philosophical hypothesis but a fact. You can read more about the same in my essay.

“Paper has more patience than people”

—Anne Frank

With this, I would like to conclude this essay. I hope I succeeded in making you realize the importance of handwriting. If that is so, make sure to share this essay with the friends you care about.

Whenever in doubt, take it out!


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