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Brain Health and Writing by Hand

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When the pandemic struck my home state, I dug up a fresh writing journal and wrote. It was not uncommon for writers to document newsworthy events that impacted their lives. Two years before entering World War II, Great Britain had begun an undertaking called Mass-Observation, encouraging civilian diarists to report what happened around them—and in their minds—for sociologists to study later.

In the present moment, it’s no less important to track the details of our days and our thoughts. There are added benefits to doing so, not related to history or publishing books. But it’s important to focus on the effort and method in which we observe and describe, to better understand the advantages.

In my pandemic journal, I dated the top of each entry, and numbered the days since the shutdown began. To date I had written, by hand, 135 accounts of life during COVID-19.

The activity of writing by hand can be healing, soothing and productive, yet we must exercise our various writing muscles, like a golfer does his swing, for the practice to be effective.

Writing vs. Typing

In a 2014 study, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Notetaking, by Pam A. Mueller, and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, the authors state, “We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and re-framing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Today, while typing on a computer, our thought processes are interrupted by alerts to misspellings or notifications of incoming emails and texts. We watch as our story instantly takes shape and we scroll forwards and back seeking out bad grammar, instead of processing the information. On paper, however, we have no such distractions. Our thoughts flow as fluid as a gel-tipped pen across the page, while our brains make sense of the information at hand for retrieval later.

During my first husband’s cancer treatments, I had written a letter to my mother for 100 days. Later, I transcribed that content into my computer. At the time, the act of writing by hand was not only expedient, but also insightful. Through writing down my emotions and reflections and forming the words blood cells, cancer, and transplant, I processed the trauma in our lives. The words became an integral part of me, and yet I could separate from them. I formed the letters and let them go, without judging the person who wrote them.

Finding Purpose and Memories

 Writing by hand also gives purpose to our days. It is an activity that isn’t related to work which takes place on a computer. When my mother first showed signs of dementia, I initiated a writing workshop at a nearby senior living center for those who experienced cognitive impairment. Each week, my partner and I invited participants into the world of the beach by bringing sand, shells and sunglasses for them to touch, or we discussed baseball and ate peanuts and popcorn. They were asked to complete the sentence, When I think of baseball, or the beach, I…They picked up a pen, and began to write. Slowly. Or they formed the occasional word. Or drew chicken scratch on paper. It didn’t matter. The exercise unearthed some lost memories and provided a sense of accomplishment for the day.  

Through the handwritten page, we also attach deeper meaning to a subject matter. Pen in hand, I pause between letters and words, reminded of my mother who did the same, despite how our handwriting differed immensely. Her letters were tight and controlled. Mine exhibited occasional loops. Sometimes, I print letters in the middle of cursive consonants and vowels, a leftover from writing computer code on graph paper in college. The curl in my capital “A” was a result of copying calligraphy from the encyclopedia for a 9th Grade history project. The “J” was reminiscent of my mother’s after we learned to forge her name on excuse notes for school.

Writing as a Tool for Brain Health

Writing with our hands clears the path between heart and brain. In caregiver writing workshops, participants consider a certain subject matter, and are presented with ideas to form a written response. They enter the maze on the page and come out on the other side with a poem, a list or a story. The brain consistently surprises. When we complete a session, at least one participant always responds, “I didn’t know that thought (or emotion) was inside of me.”

Writing is the rake which removes the leaves from behind the bushes of our experiences. It’s the dust rag which collects dirt from the windowsill as we gaze out over our lives. Writing by hand helps us evaluate our actions, process emotions, and offers a fulfilling look back on the day. While it might not always save time, the act will sustain a few brain cells for when we need them later.

Annette Januzzi Wick is a writer, speaker and author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home (Three Arch Press), available through online retailers and distributors, and is a recipient of a 2020 National Society of Newspaper Columnists award. Visit annettejwick.com to engage her services or learn more.