People are always looking for more effective ways to retain information. It’s the challenge of every student studying for their next exam, and every designer visualising their next project.
A notebook and pen have traditionally been the golden standard for taking down important information. But since the introduction of laptops, tablets and smart devices into our workplaces and lecture halls, our reliability on pen and paper has fallen to the wayside.
There is evidence that using a pen allows us to store information to short-term memory more effectively than using other implements, such as a keyboard.
In the same way, our brains are able to better visualise our design projects when we take to sketching before jumping into a digital design suite. While sketching allows us to quickly draft solutions and explore new concepts, there is evidence that drawing is also an effective method of enhancing one’s memory.
Simply listening to a conversation, a lecture or a phone call will activate the part of our brain that processes language. But, while processing new information in the moment, the brain cannot always discern between which information is more or less important – and ultimately which materials should be remembered.
A perfect example of this is the art of courtroom sketching. In previous times, cameras were not allowed in courtrooms. In some jurisdictions it was not allowed to sketch during court and artists had to rely on their memory and notes when depicting the courtroom. These artists were only allowed to take notes during the hearing and had to create their sketches after leaving the courtroom. This an impressive feat of memory, and sheds light on the importance of notes and how sketching can enhance one's memory.
When we engage in the physical act of writing or drawing however, our brain establishes neural links that allow us to connect new ideas and concepts. A brain that is both listening and writing does not necessarily remember more than a brain that is only listening, but it does structure the new information such that it can prioritise and retain key ideas.
But what does this mean in an age where notebooks and pens have been replaced by keyboards and iPad devices? Are we connecting the same cognitive pathways when we transcribe information using a laptop, rather than pen and paper?
It’s no surprise that note-takers can transcribe more words in the same amount of time with a keyboard instead of a pen in hand. But it’s substantiated that pen scribblers are more likely to develop a stronger understanding of the content, and to successfully apply and integrate new information ahead of their keyboard tapping peers.
Using a pen helps us to remember important information because in the act of writing or sketching, our brains are actively working to isolate and process key information. It is an act of “mental lifting” that exercises our cognitive processes and forces us to develop a meaningful understanding of the information.
Although pen and paper is the recommended method, keeping track of one’s various documents raises an issue that makes tablets and smartphones a more attractive option. How then, can we marry the processes of writing and drawing with the convenience of current day technologies?
The obvious answer is the stylus pen.
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