Several FB friends have recently linked to an interesting article, How Handwriting Trains the Brain, in the Wall Street Journal. It talks about why writing by hand is important in training the mind to recognize and recall shapes. It's a skill that many children, practically born with keyboards and touch screen under their fingers, have trouble with, but research indicates it may benefit older adults as well.
My purpose here isn't to bash technology, but to think about the hand-brain connection. My handwriting has definitely suffered in hte decades since we switched to computers, but I do a lot of other things, usually without thinking about it much, that require fine manipulation and control of the hands. I was struck the other day when my husband, talking to a friend about the art of drawing, said he didn't think he had ever developed the manual deterity or fine motor skills it seems to require. "Beth has always used her hands that way," he said. "But maybe because I was left-handed, and had trouble with cursive writing, I taught myself to type when I was really young and have never used pens or pencils the way she does." He was, in fact, an early keyboarder, long before there were computers, but as soon as that became a possibility, he was immediately hooked.
I have no doubt that our brains are affected by seeing and then manually reproducing shapes, and that when we practice this a lot, over time, it changes our brain structure. One reason that skills like drawing, reading music, or studying languages (especially those with different character sets) are difficult to pick up when we're older may be because we lack practice in this type of communication between the eye and the brain, and our brains need time and practice to build the ncessary neurological pathways for pattern-recognition, reproduction, and interpretation.
"It seems there is something really important about manually manipulating and drawing out two-dimensional things we see all the time," says Karin Harman James, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University who led the study.
Adults may benefit similarly when learning a new graphically different language, such as Mandarin, or symbol systems for mathematics, music and chemistry, Dr. James says. For instance, in a 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, adults were asked to distinguish between new characters and a mirror image of them after producing the characters using pen-and-paper writing and a computer keyboard. The result: For those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters' proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of graphic shapes.
The recent series on drawing for adults, "Line By Line," by illustrator James McMullen in the New York Times is another example, aimed at reviving the love of drawing many of us left behind in grade school: what McMullen calls "The Phantom Skill." It's been a long time since I've read any "art instruction" and I have mixed feelings about it, but anything that gets people drawing or painting is, I think, good news. Some of the comments have been both illuminating and, to me, almost heart-breaking. Life gets in the way, and -- tragically -- we stop doing things that are good for us because we think we're not good enough. It's never too late, though. I'm curious -- where are you in this picture? Do you still write by hand? Do you draw? Did you enjoy doing things like this and then gave them up? What would it take for you to get back to them? Are there hand-eye practices you've kept doing or taken up again?