Pen and paper boosts memory more than smart devices: study

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If your mind is less like a steel trap and more like a sieve, have you tried simply writing it down?

When looking to jot something down, many workers and students today default to their devices — laptops, smartphones and tablets. But a new study has revealed that pen and paper are more effective for those who hope to commit information to memory.

Researchers believe the tactile, dynamic medium facilitates recall by offering a more memorable image of the information.

“Paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents, because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall,” said neuroscientist Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, the University of Tokyo professor who authored the new study, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience on Friday.

The study enlisted 48 volunteers to read a conversation between two fictional students that involved details concerning upcoming plans and events, such as class schedules, assignment due dates and personal appointments. The participants, aged 18 to 29 years old, were divided equally into three groups: smartphone users, tablet users and analog note-takers. Rather than a keyboard, those assigned to devices were asked to take notes using a stylus, so as to closely mimic the speed at which one might write on paper (as many are able to type faster than write).

Though all participants shared a comparable aptitude for using smart devices, those who used pen and paper were able to complete the note-taking task in about 11 minutes, whereas tablet users took about 14 minutes and smartphone users took the most time, at 16 minutes.

Regardless of speed, participants had unlimited time to finish taking notes, though they were discouraged from spending additional time on memorizing the material. Rather, test administrators asked that they take down the information as if they were doing so for themselves, at work or in school.

An hour later, following a short break as well as an “interference task” that diverts their thoughts away from the notes, researchers began their survey of who best recalled the information they’d heard, asking questions such as when certain assignments are due or comparing dates between appointments. Volunteers were also made to complete the questionnaire while in an MRI scanner, allowing scientists to observe how brain activity changed between paper writers and those who used digital means.

Ultimately, those who took notes manually scored higher than their digitized counterparts on simpler questions. While none of the groups impressed when it came to more complex questions, researchers say that the difference in brain activity between those taking notes analog style versus digitally indicate that putting pen to paper activates the mind in a very different way — by triggering areas of the brain dealing with language, visualization, memory and navigation.

Researchers say that this indicates that more freeform, handwritten notes help us latch on to the information in our mind — like having a photographic memory.

“Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” Sakai explained.

For those married to their tech tools, researchers suggest adding elements such as highlighting, underlining or color-coded comments that one might typically see on a page of handwritten notes — visual markers that could help you recall the information in your mind’s eye.

Sakai added that their findings should be especially intriguing to creative types.

“It is reasonable that one’s creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored … and more precisely retrieved from memory. For art, composing music or other creative works, I would emphasize the use of paper instead of digital methods,” said Sakai.

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