To write by hand, to type, or to draw – which of these strategies is the most efficient for optimal learning in the classroom? As digital devices are increasingly replacing traditional writing by hand, it is crucial to examine the long-term implications of this practice. High-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG) was used in 12 young adults and 12, 12-year-old children to study brain electrical activity as they were writing in cursive by hand, typewriting, or drawing visually presented words that were varying in difficulty.
Analyses of temporal spectral evolution (TSE, i.e., time-dependent amplitude changes) were performed on EEG data recorded with a 256-channel sensor array. For young adults, we found that when writing by hand using a digital pen on a touchscreen, brain areas in the parietal and central regions showed event-related synchronized activity in the theta range. Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning.
When drawing, we found similar activation patterns in the parietal areas, in addition to event-related desynchronization in the alpha/beta range, suggesting both similarities but also slight differences in activation patterns when drawing and writing by hand. When typewriting on a keyboard, we found event-related desynchronized activity in the theta range and, to a lesser extent, in the alpha range in parietal and central brain regions. However, as this activity was desynchronized and differed from when writing by hand and drawing, its relation to learning remains unclear. For 12-year-old children, the same activation patterns were found, but to a lesser extent. We suggest that children, from an early age, must be exposed to handwriting and drawing activities in school to establish the neuronal oscillation patterns that are beneficial for learning.
We conclude that because of the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the larger involvement of the senses as well as fine and precisely controlled hand movements when writing by hand and when drawing, it is vital to maintain both activities in a learning environment to facilitate and optimize learning.