Typing, clicking and watching occupy an increasing number of hours in the average child's day. But brain research shows that writing by hand helps people remember better and learn more. The photo shows a EEG Geodesic Sensor Net with 256 evenly distributed sensors that was used to record EEG activity from the participant's scalp during the research. (NTNU/Microsoft)

A new study out of Norway suggests that handwriting and drawing engages the brain far more than typing on a keyboard, after measuring the brain activity of children and young adults performing these tasks.

The research, published this past summer in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, looked at a small sample size of twelve children and twelve young adults. The authors had studied the topic before in 2017 by looking at the brain activity of 20 students, but this new study is the first to include children.

Audrey van der Meer, a neuroscientist and professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), said in an October press release that due to an increased reliance on the digital sphere, “we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand.

“Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence" of increased digital activity, she added.

The 12 children were all in Grade 7 at a school in Trondheim, where they were used to cursive writing and drawing. The young adults who participated in the study were recruited from the NTNU campus, with the average age of roughly 24.

Each person was studied individually for around 45 minutes.

To measure participant’s brain activity, researchers used an EEG Geodesic Sensor Net. Although at a glance, it looks like a pebbly hood pulled over the head, it is actually 256 metal sensors, or electrodes, which are placed across the skull to record changes in electrical activity within the brain as it is stimulated by tasks.

While participants were hooked up to the electrodes, they performed the tasks of handwriting, typewriting and drawing.

“Fifteen different words, varying in task difficulty, were visually presented on a screen and the participants used a digital pen to write and draw directly on the touch screen, and a keyboard to type the presented words,” the report described.

After analyzing the brain activity taken from the experiment, researchers found that areas of the brain correlated with working memory and encoding new information were more active during handwriting.

This echoes previous studies, such as one often-cited 2014 study called “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard,” which have shown that writing notes by hand allowed participants to retain information better than those who typed on a laptop, even if they wrote less words overall.

“The neural processes involved in handwriting and drawing seem to be more similar to each other compared to typewriting,” the report from this new study noted.

The physical act of forming handwritten letters aided with the activation of more complex neural connections, according to researchers, but although typing requires physical movement, it didn’t spur the same on-task level of brain activity in this experiment.

“The present findings suggest that the delicate and precisely controlled movements involved in handwriting contribute to the brain’s activation patterns related to learning,” the report said. “We found no evidence of such activation patterns when using a keyboard.”

Researchers noted that the differences between brain activity while handwriting and typewriting were more pronounced for the adults than for the children, but said the findings still “provide support for handwriting practice providing beneficial neuronal activation patterns for learning.”

As digital learning becomes more ubiquitous in our world, particularly during a pandemic that has made remote-learning a reality for thousands, this study suggests that educators should take care to still include hand writing as part of the learning process.

"Learning to write by hand is a bit slower process, but it's important for children to go through the tiring phase of learning to write by hand,” said Van der Meer in the release. “If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses. It's important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible.”

This doesn’t mean researchers believe keyboards and laptops have no place in writing or education.

“I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I'd take notes by hand during a lecture,” Van der Meer explained.

Part of her concern is that in her country-- Norway -- many schools no longer teach handwriting, according to the release. In Canada, cursive writing has also been de-emphasized over the past decade, with some provinces removing it from their curriculums, and others simply making it optional.

“If we don't challenge our brain, it can't reach its full potential. And that can impact school performance," says Van der Meer.