Lose Handwriting – Lose Creativity?

I read an interesting piece recently about how not teaching handwriting appears to lead to a lack of creativity and overall learning ability. The idea put forward is that the brain develops more pattern recognition ability and cognitive skills by learning to write the “old-fashioned” way. Tests carried out show that the brain’s learning centers are not activated to the same level in children that learn “writing” through tracing of letters or just by computer typing. Even more significantly the studies also show that these effects seem to cascade over time with children who aren’t taught handwriting skills performing at lower levels in later life.

In these days of Google-Almighty and the general vogue for making everything “easy,” we seem to have completely lost sight of the idea of “no pain, no gain.” The mantra now is “if it isn’t easy, it’s not worth it” and often ideas are introduced without even the most cursory thought for what effect the strategies might have. If everything is “easy” what incentive is there to stretch the mind?

I happily use computers and work with them on a daily basis – in fact it’s major a part of my day job. I love good technology – defined as something that works well for its intended purpose (and equally loathe it when it doesn’t work or is simply a gimmick), I have a “smartphone” (which isn’t very smart despite the nomenclature), I’m currently installing an Android car computer in my ‘vette, write software on the side because I enjoy it and am generally in touch with the “technology flow” of the world.

But before all of that, my education was very “traditional” – focusing on basic skills. The “three Rs” (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic) were central parts of the school curriculum. We learned multiplication tables by heart (actually I didn’t, but that’s another story) and practiced writing both in “printed” and “cursive” forms (we just called it “joined-up” writing). I didn’t see a computer (outside magazines or TV) until I went to college at age 17 and if someone had said “internet” it would probably have been thought of as a fishing term.

So although I’m happy to embrace technology when it suits me. I can also happily live without it and see the both its good and bad sides. This background also allows me to look at some of my own “quirks” in the light of the handwriting and creativity link discussed in the article.

For example, I posted a while back about how I now do what I call a “paper edit” on all my writing. I found that the quality of my editing improved dramatically as a result of this – the process was much more thoughtful and considered and I picked up on problems that I simply didn’t see when trying to edit on screen. Looking around it seems I’m not the only one who finds working on paper very different to working on screen.

I carry a paper notebook everywhere and have no problem making notes, writing scenes and dialog and anything else if an idea comes to me out of the blue. Again there’s a level of creativity there that seems absent when composing with keyboard and screen. The keyboard and screen seem to block creativity, introducing a too-rigid, too-logical discipline that forces the brain into stricter confines much less conducive to free-flowing thought.

I’m also an inveterate “doodler” – as anyone who has looked at my notebooks will attest – a lot of these are meaningless geometric scrawls, but not infrequently they capture an idea or snapshot of imagination that works its way into my writing. If I tried to draw these on the computer I know I would fail miserably – the whole process would be too involved and too “procedural” to support that form of expression.

It seems that when I’m working at the computer part of my brain is focused on just operating the machinery, leaving less to concentrate on what I am trying to achieve. This only seems to happen when I’m doing creative work though. When I’m programming, for example, I don’t feel there is that kind of barrier.

This idea also recalls a conversation with a friend over a few beers recently. I was telling him about some of the struggles I’d had with the car computer installation I’d spent literally hours “googling” for the answer and found a lack of good clear information on the subject. Yet before the internet became commonplace those problems would have been solved by me thinking and working out the answer.

I mentioned to my friend that I realized just how dependent we’d become on the “instant-answer-google-machine” and how debilitating it felt, as if I was no longer capable of thinking and problem-solving for myself. That was a scary thought for sure, but even more worrying is the idea that there are now whole generations who’ve never lacked that “support” and don’t even realize they’ve essentially been trained not to think.

It seems to me that we need to seriously think about the effects of technology and its applications. We need to ensure that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater for all our children’s sakes and heavily limit their use and ultimate reliance on technology especially at a young age.

Beyond that we need to consider what things we might lose when making new technologies available. For tens of thousands of years human culture has been built on our intelligence and ability to apply creativity to the problems around us, wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if those “smarts” took that away again?

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