When was the last time you wrote a letter using pen and paper? Chances are you may no longer type many words, either, when emojis speak volumes.
Not surprisingly, schools and parents are placing far less emphasis on children learning penmanship. But writing by hand delivers cognitive benefits, for kids and grownups alike.
“Cursive is a way for a kid to train his brain,” says William Klemm, a neuroscience professor and doctor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. “By learning cursive, a student is actually physically changing his brain, as the brain has to hold the memory of how to do it,” Klemm explains, adding that handwriting is key to cognitive development and hand-eye coordination.
A growing field of research known as haptics studies the relationships between touch, hand movements and resulting brain function. Many studies show that putting pen to paper is a better tool for memorization and creativity than typing. In one such study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, college students who used handwritten notes scored significantly higher than students using laptops for note taking. The advantages to writing by hand are not just for students either.
After all, the constant stream of information we process digitally each day can contribute to stress, pull us away from the present moment and can even hurt productivity. If you feel like you’ve reached information overload, powering down your device and picking up a classic hobby like letter writing may be just what the doctor ordered.
To learn about the benefits of writing letters, and for tips on making it a regular habit, we talked with Karen Benke, a San Francisco Bay Area–based poet, writing coach, former teacher and author of “Write Back Soon! Adventures in Letter Writing.”
Why writing letters is healthy for us
“The motion of your hand as you write calms your nervous system and forges creative connections while engaging your motor skills and keeping your mind sharp,” Benke says. “It’s a nurturing, self-caring act to sit down and write a letter.”
Benke adds that writing a letter, as opposed to sending an email or texting someone, also allows the writer to recall events in more-interesting ways and with far more detail. “Writing slows you down in a way that allows you to revisit the particulars of a moment,” explains Benke, “so you can also revisit ways of seeing that when you’re rushing through your day in ordinary ways, you often miss.”
“Putting pen to paper is a better tool for memorization.”
Take a “techno diet” and keep the stationery nearby
Benke isn’t anti-technology and considers herself an accomplished texter. But she advocates for taking techno diets to recharge our brains’ batteries. “Put away all devices for an hour a day or even a half hour,” Benke advises. “Keep a bloom of pens on the table and keep the stamps, envelopes and paper nearby. Don’t have them all shoved in drawers somewhere so you’re looking in several different rooms for them.”
She also says to make it a treat for yourself by sitting down with a cup of tea or snack and congratulating yourself for taking the time to write a letter to someone you care about. “It’s reclaiming time for ourselves,” she says. “I think it’s sort of a political act to take back time. It’s saying, ‘I’m not going to be controlled by my phone as much today or by sitting in front of my computer. I get to take time for myself and write a letter.’”
Seek out a pen pal or join a letter-writing group
For those who need someone to write to, you can find a regular pen pal. Benke recommends contacting Letter Writers Alliance. “They have over 5,000 members, and they will put you in contact with a pen pal worldwide — from England to New Zealand to Australia to Canada,” Benke says. For $5, writers will receive an official Write More Letters card to carry in their wallet, access to a worldwide pen pal swap, free stationery downloads and a badge to put on their notebook.
Benke also recommends joining a letter-writing group, which she first learned about by invitation. “I got an invitation to a group in San Francisco where you get together at a café, you bring your address book, no phones allowed, and you share a large table for a couple hours in the evening and write letters,” she says. Try searching for a letter-writing group in your city using Google or Craigslist.
Include photographs and keepsakes
One of the biggest advantages to writing letters is the ability to harness your creative power and include physical objects that you can’t include when communicating digitally. “Tuck in a photograph or something you found,” Benke says, adding that the object you include doesn’t need to be life changing.
“I have a friend who lives on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, and she keeps her envelopes open as she walks from her apartment down to the mailbox. If she finds a wildflower or a pebble or a sprig of rosemary along the way, she’ll tuck it in the envelope and then seal it.”
The item you include can also serve as a memory keepsake from a place you visit. “On a hike on Mt. Tam with my dog last summer, I collected eucalyptus bark to make bookmarks,” Benke recalls. “I had a writing client who lived in Hong Kong and sent her something that included a bookmark. Months later we were trading emails, and she said, ‘It was raining today in Hong Kong, and I took out that bookmark and could still smell the eucalyptus … so thank you for that.’”
Stay in the moment and connect to the people who matter
It’s no secret that smartphones have created a divide in human interaction, a problem that most recently has been coined “technoference.” In one study, 74 percent of participants said that cell phones detract from their interactions with their spouse or partner. It isn’t just a problem in our romantic relationships either, Benke explains. “When you meet a friend at a cafe or a bar — or wherever — and you take your phone out, just by putting it on the table, it basically says to the person you’re with, ‘Oh, if I get a call or text, I’m going to stop being with you and focus elsewhere.’ Essentially this device between you trumps the human being/friend you’re with; it takes precedence over the moment. So we’re constantly taking ourselves out of the present moment by reaching for our phones.”
When you put the phone down and put pen to paper, you not only will do something good for yourself but also will give someone you care about a piece of yourself. “You tend to reread something that’s written by hand because you get the essence of the person through the handwriting, along with the smudges, cross outs and, my favorite, the doodles,” Benke says. “It’s a little gift for the eyes and the heart.”