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How Does Handwriting Affect Brain Development?

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Dr. Karin James discusses how handwriting affects kids' brain development, as discussed in this NY Times story.

Lewis: You have a very special interest in figuring out what goes on in people’s brains while they are using their hands. How did you become interested in handwriting in particular?

Dr. James: That’s a good question. I’ve always been interested in motor behavior in general, and I kind of stumbled across this when I was doing some research on reading acquisition. We were imaging some children who were learning to read and realized they were having motor activation in their brains and so we were curious as to what that was all about. So that’s kind of how I got into it.

Lewis: So, these were 5-year-olds. Five-year-olds in an MRI machine sounds complex enough.

Dr. James: Sometimes it is.

Lewis: So, you were really looking at what happens. Tell me a little bit about that study you did with them.

Dr. James: The first couple of studies we did with them followed a similar procedure. We imaged the children in an MRI machine, measuring their functional brain activation while they do things in real time. In this particular case what they were doing was looking at letters and numbers and simple shapes. And then what we do usually is train them after that initial scanning session. In this case, we train them to print letters. In other experiments, we’ve also had them type letters; we’ve had them trace letters. And we compare this with tracing and typing and writing shapes as well, simple shapes like circles and triangles and things. Then what we do after that training period is we bring them back to the MRI scanner and we look at how their brain has changed as a result of that experience. What we found was with these 5-year-olds, actually 4 to 6-year-olds, that were preliterate, so they weren’t readers, what we found was that their brains changed quite substantially as a result of the printing experience, and not so much as a result of typing or tracing. In particular, what we found was that, before any of this training, the children’s brain didn’t respond differently to letters and shapes, so it’s almost like the brain treats those symbols the same early on before you read. And then, after the printing practice, what we found was that the children who learned to print the letters, then their brains responded very much like adults that read.

Lewis: What is it about writing seems to recruit parts of our brain in a way that typing on a keyboard just doesn’t?

Dr. James: We’re still trying to figure that out. That’s an open question. We’re really active right now in my lab trying to figure out what it is about writing. It’s been documented that that happens, but the next step is figuring out why. I think people that are in this field are in agreement that this is a fine motor skill, and fine motor skills are very important. And creating these shapes oneself seems to be a part of the importance, not just pressing a key and there it is. So, piece-by-piece, feature-by-feature, creating these symbols seems to be something that’s important for brain activation to result the way it does.

Lewis: Reading and writing have always gone hand-in-hand in school, but it seems like many states now don’t require public schools to teach cursive, so the kids are more computer-based these days. Could this have any effect on their ability to read or think critically? Does not writing cursive take something away from their ability to learn?

Dr. James: I don’t specifically study cursive writing as in depth as some other folks do, but from what I’ve seen, taking cursive away probably doesn’t much of an effect in terms of brain activation. The problem would be if we took away the early print experience, and replaced that with keyboarding. But at this point, schools are still teaching printing early on and pre-schools are still teaching printing. To me that’s a good thing. But it’s harder to say if something like printing is having an effect on subsequent cognitive development, but it’s pointing in that direction, that early printing is very important for things like working memory, for reading as I said. So it does seem to have fairly wide-reaching effect in many different types of cognitive development but there’s still a lot of research to be done.