Smartphones and tablets make it easy to compile lists and take notes. But if you actually want to remember that information, a new study suggests, you should write it down on paper.
A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say the complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing on actual paper is likely what leads to improved memory.
“Actually, 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 of the research recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The research was completed with collaborators from the NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting.
Study volunteers who used paper actually completed note-taking tasks about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.
Although volunteers wrote by hand both with pen and paper or stylus and digital tablet, researchers say paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper. Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes and uneven shape, like folded corners, the researchers state. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.
“Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize,” Sakai said in a press release from the university.
For their study, the researchers had 48 volunteers read a fictional conversation where the characters discussed their plans for two months out, including 14 class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments. Researchers performed pre-test analyses to ensure that the volunteers, all 18-29 years old and recruited from university campuses or NTT offices, were equally sorted into three groups based on memory skills, personal preference for digital or analog methods, gender, age and other aspects.
Volunteers then recorded the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone and a touch-screen keyboard. There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules, without spending extra time to memorize the schedule.
After an hour — including a break and an interference task to distract them from thinking about the calendar — volunteers answered a range of simple (When is the assignment due?) and complex (Which is the earlier due date for the assignments?) multiple-choice questions to test their memory of the schedule.
While answering the questions, volunteers were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which measures blood flow around the brain. Increased blood flow in a specific region of the brain is a sign of increased neuronal activity in that area.
Participants who used a paper datebook needed about 11 minutes to fill in the calendar. Tablet users needed 14 minutes, and smartphone users about 16 minutes. Because volunteers used the devices at the same speed — regardless of how often they used them in their regular lives — the researchers were confident the difference in speed was related to memorization or associated encoding in the brain, not just differences in the habitual use of the tools.
Volunteers who used analog methods scored better than other volunteers only on simple test questions. However, researchers say the brain activation data revealed significant differences.
Volunteers who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization and in the hippocampus — an area known to be important for memory and navigation. Researchers say the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.
“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.
Researchers say that personalizing digital documents by highlighting, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, handwriting color-coded notes in the margins, adding virtual sticky notes, or other types of unique mark-ups can mimic analog-style spatial enrichment that might enhance memory.
Although the study focused on learning and memorization, the researchers encourage using paper for creative pursuits, as well.
“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,” Sakai said.