Science Says Writing Thoughts Down on Paper Is the Best Way to Jog Your Memory

This method activates the brain more than using smart technology, researchers at the University of Tokyo discovered.

It's clear that we live in an ever-evolving world, and we rely on technology to keep us connected and informed every single day. But there are some things that never change, despite how much technology has advanced—though we have tablets and e-readers, we still love the feeling of reading a hardcopy book, and while our smartphones are equipped with notes apps, most people still prefer jotting down thoughts and reminders on pieces of paper. And there's a very good reason why we prefer to do the latter, researchers say. A team from the University of Tokyo just published a new study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience that says that writing on paper is actually the best for your mind. "Paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall," said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo and corresponding author in the study.

Most people like smart phones or tablets because they seem to make everyday tasks easier, but after rounding up 48 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 29 for the study, the researchers found that those who wrote on paper to finish note-taking tasks completed these 25 percent faster than people who used a stylus and digital tablet. The reason? The team said that using paper gave the participants more of an opportunity to write in their own form (think: irregular strokes and uneven shapes), while digital paper is more consistent and it will also disappear once you close the app. "Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize," said Sakai.

woman at desk writing in notebook
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The researchers split up the groups filled with college students or NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting office members into three groups depending on the individuals' memory, preferences for using paper or digital tools, gender, and age. Then each volunteer read a fictional conversation that highlighted characters explaining their plans about their future, which mentioned what they wanted to do in two months, their 14 different class times, assignments they would have due, and any other odds and ends (like appointments). After using their paper or a device to take notes about this fictional scenario, the participants were given an hour break and a task to keep them from thinking directly about the study. They were then asked a number of questions, such as "When is the assignment due for the characters?" and "When is the earliest due date for the assignments?"

Those who used paper took only 11 minutes to jot down their thoughts during the study, while people who used tablets took 14 minutes; smartphone users spent the most time on the task, taking 16 minutes to write down their thoughts. Plus, people who used paper, also known as the analog method, got higher scores than others on the test questions and they boosted their brain activity when it came to language, imaginary visualization, and their hippocampus (memory). "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 explained. The researcher also noted that paper can help creativity overall: "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."

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