Classicists who covet gadgets may have a new favorite tool in Augmented Paper, Montblanc’s luxury response to the dominance of electronics. The bluetooth pen and leather-bound pad together transmit handwriting directly to digital devices.
Whether or not that’s true, studies show that all ages are still cerebrally stimulated by handwriting. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain, where information is filtered, prioritized, and processed, responds positively to writing activity with enhanced cognitive ability. Children’s cognition is better while writing than through purely passive acquisition, and handwriting bolsters language, math, and music-learning in adults. It also helps the elderly maintain mental alacrity.
Typing doesn’t have the same effects. A study by University of Washington educational psychologist Virginia Berninger compared the influence of typing and freehand on the writing of 200 children in elementary school. She found that kids consistently wrote better, more, and faster sentences and essays by hand than when typing. Freehand sentences were more complete and produced quickly, suggesting that scribbling hones focus.
Why typing doesn’t work this way isn’t established yet, but Berninger believes it may be due to differences in physical engagement involved in handwriting versus typing. Selecting and pressing keys on a keyboard is passive compared to forming letters manually. Writing on paper also limits distractions.
“Brain-imaging studies with adults have shown an advantage for forming letters over selecting or viewing letters,” Berninger says. “We need more research to figure out how forming letters by a pen and selecting them by pressing a key may engage our thinking brains differently.”
Science aside, there’s also a certain cultural cachet to penmanship. Handwriting is a meditative ritual, unlike typing. Freehand frees the mind, and professional writers swear by scribbling when it comes to lucidity. Susan Sontag drafted in longhand. Truman Capote wrote in pencil. Vladimir Nabokov used lined note cards and sharp pencils (though never too hard). Penmanship is also an art, though the charming flourish of cursive is already at risk of obsolescence.
For $680 (plus new paper at $55 per page), Augmented Paper may be an expensive and aesthetically pleasing way to experience the best of both worlds. (Although The Verge called the technology pedestrian.) But handwriting’s days could still be numbered. The brains of younger generations are changing with new technology, and might ultimately respond to different stimuli than those of older generations. According to Kirk Erickson, principal investigator of the Brain Aging & Cognition Health Lab at the University of Pittsburgh, technology could already be altering cerebral development.
“I think it’s very possible,” he says. “But we haven’t yet directly linked these things.”