Reading Writing and the Connection to Brain Function

Understanding that all human functions stem from the brain’s commands, some assume that the brain is a type of machine that functions without any assistance. On the contrary, the brain too needs assistance in creating its neural activity. Neural activity is necessary in learning.

Writing by hand engages the brain in learning. At Indiana University, back in 2010, a study conducted by following brain activity in children revealed that the children who had done some manual writing had neural activity far more enhanced (similar to that of adults) than the children who had only looked at the necessary stimuli.  In fact they noticed that to the brain, manually manipulating and drawing two-dimensional things was an important process.

In 2008 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, a study was reported whereby the adult participants were asked to discriminate between new symbols or letter characters and their mirror image. They were asked to do this first by writing them on paper and then typing them on a computer keyboard. As a result, those who wrote by hand had a stronger and longer lasting recognition of the characters; this suggested that the movements made by the hand sparked the neural activity and made it possible to memorize the visual identification of graphic shapes.

Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, points out that when writing by hand the person executes sequential strokes to form a letter which engages brain activity. When typing on the keyboard, however, the brain is limited to choosing and then pressing the key.  In one of her studies, children in grades two, four and six were able to write more words, faster and had a better ability to express more ideas when they wrote essays by hand than on the computer typing on the keyboard.

Passive learning contributes to the brain’s inactivity. This why doctors warn that television is the path to Alzheimer’s disease.  When watching television we engage the brain only in viewing. Information is passed through without any complicated process and often times the information is not retained unless it was something that sparked extreme emotions: interest, disgust.  This is why middle-aged adults and older are recommended to do word puzzles and play mind games among other things.

Reading is another important process of learning. Not simply learning information but helping the brain form mind maps; helping it function. Neuroscientist Dr. Stanislaus Dehaene  informs that reading develops the way the brain functions.  In a study he and his colleagues observed the brain function in Brazilian and Portuguese adults by comparing  those who could read with those who had not learnt how to read.

In December 2011 the results were published in the journal Science. Of the participant adults, 31 had been literate from childhood, 22 had learnt to read as adults and 10 were illiterate.  The scientists found that regions of the brain which everyone uses to process visual stimuli and information were superior in the adults who were literate. Furthermore, in the literate groups even listening skills were better. In readers the ability to perceive speech sounds was enhanced and the subjects were able to recognize speech sounds more accurately.

Dr. Dehaene’s research suggests that if the ability to read assists in building parts of the brain that are essential for listening and observing, students who have problems reading may also have difficulty learning from auditory classroom instruction. While learning to read is essential to learning generally, teachers must have their guard up for those students who struggle to learn how. It is therefore, necessary to look into the why. Some of those children may have a hearing impairment, others may simply lack practice at home while still others may be dyslexic. And dyslexia is very complicated in that it varies from person to person.

As is apparent from the above information writing by hand and reading are two skills which scientists and their research have verified as being of grave importance. Although in today’s world the computer and all new technology make learning more attractive and at times easier a task, one must never underestimate the necessity of a few manual skills. Is it safe to assume then that the rise in illiteracy in the American nation could be contributed to too much reliance on the computer in the classroom?