So I overheard my partner listening to the latest episode of The Intelligence podcast and it had a bit on handwritten notes. As someone who types a lot of notes, their claim that handwritten notes are better really stood out.

Here’s what they said:

Well, there are lots of different studies on the topic, and it turns out that writing on paper can improve everything from recalling items on a random list of words to actually inviting a better conceptual grasp of complex ideas.

They’ve been seen to lie somewhere in the kind of motor and sensory systems that are used to do these things and the memory that is recruited when you write things down and if you try to play a piece on the piano a bunch of times your fingers will start to learn the music as well as your auditory system, and that goes as well for writing things down.

You might also notice the visual shape of the page where you wrote notes down on a page or where you wrote a specific word to remember or something like that, so that recruits your visual memory as well.

The biggest advantage seems to be in superior note taking by people who do it with a pen and paper.

Just to write things down with a pen and paper, it is slower for almost everybody, nearly everyone, can type faster than they can write with a pen, especially at the college level.

But it turns out there’s an advantage in that inefficiency, which means that it makes you compress ideas as you’re writing them down. It means you have to be thinking as you’re writing as a result, what goes down is a sort of distilled essence that’s already been through your brain.

Students who take handwritten notes have consistently well outperform students who take typed notes, and that’s because the students who type there’s are taking a lot more down, there’s a lot more words on the page, but those notes are almost entirely verbatim, which means they’re not really going through the brain quite in the same way, and that seems to make it a big difference.

I mean, I get it. There are notes I’ve taken that make no sense whatsoever and those were typed. But I believe you can engage that ‘idea compression’ bit of your brain when typing notes as well as handwriting them.

You don’t have to handwrite a piece of music to learn how to play it, do you?

I used to work with a developer who was incredible at this. In user research sessions, he’d be typing furiously, but he always seemed to be lagging behind what the user was saying. His notes weren’t verbatim, they were shorter and, most importantly, made sense. He listened, processed what was being said, formed a better compressed sentence in his head and wrote down that compressed sentence.

So I’m not sure it’s terribly accurate to say that handwriting notes is superior. You just have to engage the right part of the brain when typing notes.