Is typing dangerous to the quality of your thinking?
Recently, my friends have all started panicking about this. It began a month ago when the Atlantic reported on a study finding that college students who typed notes on a laptop remembered less about a lecture than those who wrote by hand. Old-fashioned handwriting, it seems, focused the mind. The students who handwrote were more judicious in their note-taking; the typists frantically tried to transcribe every single thing the lecturer said. “Does this mean I should stop typing things?” a friend asked me. “Am I getting stupider with every keystroke?”
Then the New York Times science section weighed in with a cover story arguing that, indeed, handwriting was cognitively superior to typing — particularly for young kids. The piece by Maria Konnikova cited several recent experiments, including one that found greater brain activity in children who wrote rather than typed. Another one discovered that elementary-school kids who hand-wrote their work produced more words — and more ideas — than those who typed. “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information,” Konnikova concluded.
By now, my friends were all in a lather. Typing is turning us into idiots! they emailed me. I’m going to go out and buy some pencils!
Now, I’m a full-blown pencil fetishist. (Actually, it’s even worse; I sit around obsessing about pencil sharpeners, too. Behold the video footage.) So I was actually quite grateful for this mini-panic over the dangers of the keyboard. Anything that gets people to use more graphite is fine by me!
But, as I told my friends, things aren’t quite so simple. If you look at the science around typing, it suggests that keyboards may not be so hazardous for your mind — because it all depends on what task you’re doing. When you’re taking notes, it’s true, handwriting can have an edge. It’s good for absorbing knowledge.
But when you’re trying to produce knowledge — to develop and express thoughts of your own? Then the winner is often typing.
More specifically, it’s fast typing.
When you write something down, either while taking notes or while trying to write your own original thoughts, you’re dealing with what literacy scholars call “transcription fluency”: How quickly and fluidly you can get down — “transcribe” — the stuff that’s in your head. One of the reasons we formally teach handwriting to young children is that you don’t want a bottleneck between the ideas they’re forming and the writing. If you struggle with the act of forming letters and words, you’ve got less mental juice (working memory, executive control) left over to manage your higher-level processes: Pondering the flow of your argument, the points you’re aiming to make, alternate phrasings. Decades of literacy research generally show that kids who handwrite more fluidly perform better in tests and on essays than those who write slowly. This is precisely why teaching handwriting remains crucial. “If you can’t move quickly enough, your idea can slip away and never come back,” as Steve Graham, a noted literacy scholar at Arizona State University, tells me.
Despite the worries that computers and keyboards are taking over our kids’ educations, this isn’t yet the case. Pencil and paper are “still the most common way students write in class,” as Graham adds. That’s certainly what I’ve observed. In my reporting, I visit schools pretty frequently (my kids are also in elementary school, so I see their institution also) and paper is alive and well. As it should be: With young kids, learning is deeply physical. The alphabet and words sink into their minds in part because they’re associated with physical movements.
The problem is that while schools work hard to make sure kids can handwrite quickly, they don’t do the same thing for typing.
Very few elementary-school classrooms formally teach kids touch typing. I’ve never seen solid data on this (if you know of any, please email me), but literacy researchers tell me it’s fairly rare. Kids wind up learning slow, hunt-and-peck typing, and once they’ve got that in their muscle memory, it’s hard to unlearn. How slow does this make them? Hard to say, again; colleges do not routinely track this. But one 2007 study measured a small group of 21 college students and found their average typing speed was an abysmal 12.2 words per minute, which is probably slower than even their handwriting.
Transcription fluency matters with typing, too. If you’re struggling to hunt-and-peck your way through writing an essay, you’re losing too much mental effort to the task of merely forming words.
The converse is true. Experiments with children show that if you get them typing quickly, their school performance improves — quite dramatically.
In 1999, the educational scholar Carol Christensen took 35 Australian 13-year-olds who had “low levels of proficiency in typing”, ranking in the bottom 15% of their school for words-per-minute. They were split into groups. One group was given 20 minutes of typing instruction each school day for eight weeks. A control group was allowed to type each day for the same time, but didn’t get any instruction. They scored the quality of the students’ writing before and after the experiment. Sure enough, speed mattered. The quality of writing amongst the kids who’d been taught to type soared, far above the kids who hadn’t been given touch-typing lessons. (Specifically, ranked on a scale up to 25, the prose produced by the touch-typing kids hit a median score of 17.81, compared to 12.15 for the others.) As Christensen wrote:
In other words, by facilitating students’ ability to put letters and words on the page, they increased their ability to produce text that was creative and original, more technically accurate, more logically sequenced and better organized and showed greater pragmatic awareness and sensitivity to audience … These differences were not trivial.
In another experiment, Michael Russell took a group of Massachusetts students in grade 4 and 8, and had them write essays in two 45 minute chunks — one group on a keyboard, one group by hand. The ones who typed their essays wrote longer than the ones who wrote by hand (536 words on average, compared to 448 words), they used slightly better English, and they developed their topics much more comprehensively. More interestingly yet, Russell broke down performance by typing speed — and sure enough, the grade 8 students who typed the most rapidly (32.4 words per minute or better) had the highest scores of all.
Russell even surmised that there might be an inflection point — a typing speed at which, once you reach it, you experience a nonlinear shift, a quantum leap in the quality of your writing and your thought, because you’re no longer struggling with the tool at hand. He guessed it would be around 20 to 24 words per minute.
So — any parents reading this! Can your grade-8 children type at least 20 words a minute? (You can test them via that online app pictured on the left, online here.)
If they can’t, then hey: It’s never been easier to learn touch typing. In the precambrian days of DOS you had to buy a copy of Mavis Beacon, but now there are oodles of free touch-typing programs for free online, like this one by the BBC.
But enough about kids. I suspect typing-speed affects the cognition of adults, too. It probably affects you.
The people I know who are most coherent in print and online tend to be very rapid typists. When you can type quickly, there’s a joy to the iterative quality of writing. You start bashing out a sentence, then realize about half-way through that it’s not quite what you want — the phrasing or ideas are “off”, clichéd, flat, barbaric. So you instantly delete all but the first few words and rewrite, zipping back and forth and trying out various microexperiments in phrasing and conception. This is delightful and fun, and pretty much impossible if you can’t type fluidly.
Proponents of handwriting tend to romanticize the physicality of the pencil and paper, while failing to appreciate the rich physical and kinesthetic joys of the keyboard.
Back in 2003 when I was on a science-journalism fellowship at MIT, the neuroscientist Frank Wilson came in to talk about his terrific book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. Annalee Newitz — one of my fellow science-journalism fellows — asked him how keyboarding affected the way we think. Wilson shrugged. He didn’t think keyboards were terribly cognitively interesting, not the way handwriting was. Newitz and I were baffled by his blasé attitude. The nerds and writers of our acquaintance were crazy-passionate not just about keyboarding, but about the type and model of keyboard they used. They’d argue in bars, drunkenly and coming nearly to blows, over which keyboard “felt” the best, which one had the best keypress action, whether the haptic delights of the IBM Model M “clicky” keyboard were worth its gatling-gun rattle (or whether that noise was, conversely, the best part.) Fast typists deeply intuit the relationship between transcription fluency and written expression. (The best love-letter to typing I’ve ever seen is the brass steampunk keyboard designed by Jake von Slatt, in the background of this paragraph.)
That said, the pro-handwriting folks are also correct. Handwriting fires up mental modes that are usefully different from typing. When it comes to note-taking during a lecture, being a really fast typist can — as the researchers reported in the Atlantic found — nudge you into bad habits. In the presence of a lecturer or interview subject, typing seems to turn us automatically into transcriptionists, trying desperately to capture verbatim the incoming words, instead of trying to ingest and distill their meaning. When I’m writing, the comparative slowness of handwriting can be a boon — particularly if I’m trying to do big-picture thinking. When I’m structuring an article, I often find I can only do it on pencil and paper. The swoopy, diagrammatic, this-connects-to-that mode helps me float 50,000 feet above my work and see the wireframe clearly. (Even doodling, as Sunni Brown has documented, opens windows to creative thought.)
The truth, of course, is that the cognitive styles of handwriting and keyboard are both invaluable. In an ideal world, we should be fluent in both modes, so we can flit between the two — which, frankly, is how most white-collar people work and think all day long. (Me, I’ve been working on my handwriting. Three years ago I became so appalled at its quality that I bought a book to help me fix it.)
It’s also true, as Steve Graham points out to me, that the educational culture-wars over handwriting-versus-typing are somewhat overwrought. So long as kids — and adults — can move fast enough to fluidly get their ideas out, they’ll perform reasonably well, he notes. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a rabid advocate for superfast typing. (This entire essay is totally self-flattering, because I’ve been touch typing since middle school.) If I had my way — and infinite educational budgets — kids wouldn’t be allowed to graduate high school until they could type 70 WPM. But the science doesn’t completely support my lunatic enthusiasm, nor does everyday experience. I know plenty of novelists, academics, business folks and journalists who produce thoughtful, incisive work while moseying along with a hunt-and-peck style of perhaps 15 words a minute.
These days, I’m wondering how our cognition will be affected by the next great shifts in compositional technologies: The rise of voice dictation and heavily-AI-assisted full-sentence autocompletion technology.
Now that’ll be fun to argue about.