Pen versus Keyboard

The debate rages on, which is mightier, the pen or the keyboard? A flurry of recent articles has been lamenting the demise of handwriting and the inability of the internet generation to read and write cursive script. The arguments don’t simply center on which is the more efficient tool, rather the lines are being drawn over which method of placing ink to page or pixels to screen furthers the creative process, facilitates learning, offers long term benefit to brain development and acts to attenuate the threat of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

As narratives go, this one is straightforward. The pen or stylus has a long and storied history dating back to the cuneiform of the Sumerians and the Epic of Gilgamesh, Linear scripts of the early Greeks, Hebrew, Aramaic, Trajan’s Column and so forth through the italic, Spencerian and Palmer revolutions. Asian cultures have elevated the art of calligraphy to a spiritual practice that ultilizes the Four Treaures of Study consisting of the inkstick, inkstone, brush and paper.

The keyboard on the other hand is criticized as a mechanical process that splits the mental focus into two hands and attention between the keyboard and screen, and as a result the creative process is corrupted. According to this school of thought, the process of manually crafting a letter with the focal point of a single stylus upon the page is a more creative and intellectual process than learning to actuate a letter represented by a key upon a keyboard and that the look of one’s handwriting is a window into one’s character.

A recent article suggests that handwriting differs from keyboarding because is activates Broca’s speech area and two other locations of the brain on functional MRI. In China, brush calligraphy is being used as a treatment for attention deficit and moods disorders and a large study performed in Hong Kong has found that elderly persons who engaged in regular cognitive activities including both writing and keyboarding suffered significantly less age related dementia and cognitive decline. One of the outcomes of this research is that we now understand that we process the language of words and letters differently than we process symbolic logographic language. An early form of Chinese language called Kanji uses symbols to convey ideas rather than individual letters. The more modern system of writing that uses individual letters is called Kana. This is significant because it was found that individuals who suffered damage to their language center by a stroke were able to continue to communicate with Kanji but not Kana.

Proponents of handwriting argue that the focus necessary to form letters and words in the mind and produce them in a beautiful display on paper is a satisfying healthy practice. I agree. Handwriting is a wonderful satisfying way to communicate. One of my great joys is using fountain pens to take notes, prepare articles and narratives and to maintain my notebooks and journals.

Information from the scientific and health care communities doesn’t let us pick a winner between pens and keyboards. Both are effective methods of communication, both seem to help stave off the ravages of cognitive decline and both have produced brilliant works of art. As in all things, for there to be a benefit, you have to put in the time and the effort necessary for it make a difference.

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