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News: Brighter Writer

Handwriting may be a lost art, but it has novel benefits for the brain

When was the last time you wrote something by hand that was longer than a grocery list—or do you have an app for that, too? Handwriting is a dying art, and most of us probably don't lament its demise. But recent research suggests there's a reason to put pen to paper: It's good for the brain.

One study found that when preschool children looked at letters of the alphabet, those who had practiced writing showed more activation in the visual areas of their brains than those who had practiced letter recognition alone. Writing by hand seems to help lay the neural groundwork for other important skills like reading.

A follow-up study found that looking at letters activates a previously documented "reading circuit" in the brain only after writing by hand, not after typing or even tracing. The results suggest that there's something important about writing freehand; the researchers propose that producing non-uniform letters actually enhances letter recognition. Their theory fits well with the finding that people learn categories best when they are given highly varied examples, observes Karin Harman James, the Indiana University psychologist who led the studies.

Worrying about penmanship is "completely misguided," says James. What's important, she says, is that children are encouraged to put down the iPad and pick up a pencil—something adults would be wise to try, too. If that sounds hard, that's the point: Giving your brain a workout keeps it in shape.