Taking notes by hand, instead of by phone or tablet leads to better memory

"Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize," said one of the researchers.

Letters (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Taking notes by hand instead of a phone or tablet leads to better recollection, according to a study completed by the University of Tokyo.
The "unique, complex, spatial and tactile information" that comes along with jotting thoughts or notes down physically on a piece paper is likely what leads to improved memory as well as brain activity, the researchers claim.
"Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall," said co-author of the study Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo.
The study used Japanese University of Tokyo students and graduate attendees to complete the study. On average, volunteers who used pen and paper completed a note-taking task about 25% faster than those who used digital means to do so.
Some 48 volunteers each read a fictional conversation between two characters, who discussed their plans for the next couple of months. The important points to note were that there were 14 different scheduled class times, a number of assignment due dates and personal appointments the students had going on outside of school.
The students either took down notes using a pen and paper agenda or datebook, while those using digital options used a stylus and a large tablet or smartphone.
After a break and an "interference task," the participants were then called back to be asked a range of multiple choice questions, from: "When is the assignment due," to harder questions like "which is the earlier due date for the assignments." While answering the questions the students were also undergoing MRIs to test brain activity.
Students using pen and paper were found to have more brain activities in areas that control "language, imaginary visualization and in the hippocampus," the latter used for memory and navigation.
The researchers purport that the reason why those who took notes by hand had an easier time completing the tasks rests in the freedom students have with note-taking on a physical piece of paper, which allows for "tangible permanence, irregular strokes and uneven shape" - as in the notes are unique to the student, while digital versions are more uniform.
"Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize," said Sakai.
On average, those who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar in just about 11 minutes, tablet users 14 and smartphone users 16. The researcher noted that even those who use these analog methods in their personal lives completed the tasks "just as slow" as volunteers who don't use the methods regularly - which leads them to believe "that the difference in speed was related to memorization or associated encoding in the brain, not just differences in the habitual use of the tools," the statement said.
However, volunteers who used analog methods did score higher on simple test questions, but the brain activation data had "significant differences."
"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 said.
Simple personalization within the notes such as underlining, highlighting, circling, arrows, color coded features, things jotted in the margin, are what makes handwriting notes unique and more effective for recollection.
The researchers also believe that using a pen and paper will not only improve memory, but also creativity.
"It is reasonable that one's creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored with stronger learning 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," Sakai concluded.
The peer-reviewed study was recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.