Why the Pen is Mightier than the Laptop

You may take notes faster on your laptop, but new research suggests you will be better served by grabbing a pen and paper. Oh, and go ahead and doodle while you’re at it. You’ll be glad you did. 

The next time you go to a meeting, you might want to consider leaving your iPad behind and instead taking along a pad and pen.

That’s because a new study shows what many of us have suspected for some time: That we’re better able to retain and understand information if we write it longhand instead of using a laptop or other device to take notes.

In three studies by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer recently published in Psychological Science, it was found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

Mueller, a Princeton University doctoral candidate, says that one surprising aspect of the study was that even though someone can take more notes via a laptop, transcribing those notes verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. In other words, you may write slower than you can type, but you’re also listening, digesting and summarizing what you hear.

This research may give bosses more ammunition when it comes to advocating that workers take notes by hand during a meeting to retain more (and to avoid the distraction of checking Facebook). It also may back up the complaint by managers that workers who don’t write down instructions or other information are sure to forget it later or make an error in their thinking.

Of course, toting along a pad and pen to a meeting also increases the chances that workers will begin doodling, which isn’t possible while typing on a keyboard. While bosses may feel that doodling signals the worker isn’t paying attention, research shows that isn’t the case.

The brain is designed to always be active (to ensure that a woolly mammoth won’t sneak up unnoticed), so if you don’t give it something to do, it will go looking. Daydreams of winning the lottery or dating a supermodel will begin to occupy you when you are bored, which can often happen in a meeting.

A study by Jackie Andrade in Applied Cognitive Psychology finds that doodling gives us enough cognitive stimulation to keep the brain from simply unplugging from reality and start dreaming of winning “American Idol.”

“People have been doodling for over 30,000 years from cavemen and women to cultures that developed pictographic languages. Simple visual language has always offered a way to share and pass on information and history,” says Sunni Brown, a doodling enthusiast and supporter.

She explains that experiments show that doodling can improve creativity and boost information processing and retention. By physically drawing shapes, images and letters, “we are inviting our minds to slow down and to focus on that experience.”

Doodling also can help you work through a problem. Steve Jobs was known to use whiteboards and physical movements to illustrate his concepts, and seemed to think better while doing it, Brown says.

But that doesn’t mean that doodling will be embraced in all workplaces, and there are still some doubts as to whether those swirls, dots or triangles doodled on your notepad are meaningful.

Take, for example, a case many years ago when then-Great Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair’s doodles during an economic conference in Davos became public fodder.

A graphologist carefully studied the doodles and proclaimed that Blair was clearly “”struggling to maintain control in a confusing world” and “is not rooted.” Worse, Blair was apparently, “not a natural leader, but more of a spiritual person, like a vicar.”

Several days after these opinions were published in the press it was determined that the doodles did not belong to Blair, but were instead the handiwork of Bill Gates, who was seated near Blair. (Other famous doodlers include Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

So the next time you go to a meeting, make sure your take paper and pen to write down notes, but also don’t be afraid to doodle. Just make sure your boss understands you’re following in the footsteps of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

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