There was some research done into what parts of the brain were triggered when writing at a computer versus what parts were triggered when writing with a pencil and paper. The experiments showed that writing by hand triggered activity in significantly different portions of the brain than when writing at a computer. (See Mozarts Brain and the Fighter Pilot book.)
Obviously, it is expected that there would be some difference because of the varied muscle motor skills required by each activity. However, the difference was greater than what would be expected by just the required motor differences. The conclusion of the researchers was that we think significantly differently when writing by hand than we do when using a computer. This has some important implications for creativity. By simply changing the way we record our thoughts, we can change the neurons that are firing inside our heads. Using different neurons opens up the possibility of making different types of connections and associations.
This isn’t to say that switching how you write will suddenly make you a genius, but it can help you reach your full potential. As a simple exercise, try writing about a subject using a computer and then coming back and writing about it again the next day using a pen and paper. You’ll probably find that you make some new associations that you didn’t make previously. This is partially because of the way your brain tends to work on things subconsciously and partially because changing the way you write causes your brain to work differently.
Composers have used this trick for years when they get stuck writing music. It is common practice for them to switch to a different instrument to help get over a brain block. The different instrument causes them to think about the musical “problem” in a different way.
You can use a similar approach when you feel like you are suffering from a lack of creativity. Even simple things like working in a different place can help change your mind’s context in ways that can help trigger new creative thoughts. Here is a list of some things you can do to help trigger different parts of your brain:
- Change Where You Work – This can be as simple as moving from the desk to the dining room table for a few hours, or as drastic as spending a month in a Mexican villa across the border.
- Use a Different Tool – This is similar to the idea of switching from writing with the computer to writing by hand, but it can be done in other ways as well. If you are writing, try using a typewriter for a while. If you are working for creative numerical solutions, switch to using a calculator and ledger paper instead of a spreadsheet. If you normally use Microsoft Word, switch to using a simpler text editor.
- Talk to Someone Else – If you are brain storming for a solution to a problem, consider discussing it with someone totally outside of your area of expertise. Talk to a child or your grandparent. You may find that the process of defining the problem for someone outside of the problem domain can help clarify a solution.
- Take a Break – Sometimes just doing something totally unrelated can help you generate creative ideas. Better yet, do something you’ve never done before. This can be as simple as visiting a new coffee shop or as drastic as moving to a foreign country.
Of course, if you spend all of your time just trying to mix things up to be creative, your productivity will go down. However, spending a little time making sure that you aren’t getting stuck in a thinking rut can be extremely valuable and can help you make leaps ahead in your personal effectiveness.
Originally published December 1, 2006.
Cynthia Huntington says
This is fascinating. Can you provide the source for these research findings? –I’d like to follow up and I imagine other readers might want to also.
Mark Shead says
@Cynthia – I believe you can read about this in the book Mozarts Brain and the Fighter PIlot.
Steve @ cpastories.com says
I read typed words all the time… I noticed, however, that when I was/(still am) preparing for the CPA exam, I preferred writing my notes by hand instead of typing them up. My reasoning was that it would break the monotony of typed words, and I would be more actively involved than if I typed it all up. (The second reason was kind of weak.) My other reason was that I like to see my handwriting. I can tell that it is I who wrote it, than if something is typed up. Now after reading this, I am glad to learn that when I write with a pen, I exercise different parts of my brain. Actually, earlier today, I was wondering whether I should type up my notes so that I can post them on my blog, or hand-write. This post settles it! I will hand-write, and then scan them to post on the blog.
Part of the difference in mindset between using a computer versus using paper could be because of what is involved in editing.
Words on a computer can be edited with relative ease: deleting is a few keystrokes away, rearranging can be as simple as dragging and dropping, and multiple versions of the same document (or sentence, or paragraph) can exist without much effort at all. Text on a computer can live in a perpetual state of partly-done for a very long time.
On the other hand, words on paper have a sort of permanence, in that there are actual physical resources being consumed in their creation. We wouldn’t want to waste paper or ink, or make our pencils dull, for something that isn’t worthwhile. When we get to the end of a page, we have a tangible chunk of content that exists “for real”, instead of the virtual existence on a computer screen (though of course we can print a document in order to give it some permanence, but then we are likely to turn it into a paper canvas on which we make hand-written notes). The changes possible on paper are quite limited: we can’t add much more to it, and removing content by scribbling it out or using whiteout or an eraser is just as permanent-feeling as putting the content there to begin with. There is no undo, only redo. But these are not disadvantages when we really need to focus on creating instead of getting bogged down in modifying!
There are other aspects to this, of course, but I bet this is one that is big enough to really change how our brain tends to work while using each of these media for writing. The subconscious mind takes into account all aspects of the activity, and will guide our consciously-creative thoughts accordingly.
I tend to use paper for brainstorming, as a way to tap into my thoughts with less judgement getting in the way. I also like using paper to write about my feelings or other thoughts intended for my own eyes only, or for personal and heartfelt notes to people I care about. When it comes to actually crafting of sentences and paragraphs for more general public consumption, I prefer the flexibility of using a computer and the tools therein. However, I could probably benefit from remembering to turn to paper more often when writing feels like a struggle against my brain instead of a tapping into it!
Very interesting findings of the survey :) Here is an article describing 10 tips to come up with fresh ideas at work. I really find myself in these this is why I recommend you to read it.
Tracy Talbot says
Great stuff! I was wondering why it seemed for me that typing out my class notes into a study guide for my exams wasn’t as effective as hand-writing the study guides. This totally makes sense now. I bet if I first hand-write the study guides, and then type them up, I’ll reinforce the learning even better, because I’ll be using two different groups of my brain to study the material! THANK YOU!!!!
Kristin K. Jenkins says
Thank You So MUCH for all of those very fitting TIPS!! I have been in a “thinking rut”. Also, I , Like most creatives get too many On-going projects and may only completely finish one. So, I choose the Mexican coast option for some much much needed relaxation! (yeah right) Oh well, stuck here trying to invent my own little enterprise! Thanks again
Fascinating post. I’ve noticed some of this myself. For example, if I’m working on a humorous speech for Toastmasters, sitting down at my computer at home doesn’t work. Staring at my monitor doesn’t evoke any funny ideas at all.
However, I’ve come up with some funny speeches working with paper and pencil at Starbucks. I have no problem editing my draft at my computer, but I have to do the creative work somewhere else.
Would love to see more details about these studies.
Mark Shead says
@Madeleine – I would recommend reading Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot. It has a strange name, but it is a fascinating look at how the brain works.
Mark, I’m so intrigued by this!! I find it to be so very true for myself. I will definitely be getting this book. I have always taken detailed notes by hand, then redone them into outline form (used to be by hand, now I type them up in my computer). I have always learned much better this way and now I understand why. I truly write much better by hand and can much refine much better on the computer. Yippee!!!! Thanks again!!! You are right on!!! Ola