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From pen to pixel: memory, cognition, and learning in the age of AI.
In an age increasingly defined by digital interaction, the way we learn and retain information has fundamentally changed. At the heart of this transformation is what may seem like a very basic experience - the act of writing. Whether it's writing a shopping list, taking notes, or crafting a story, writing has long been a critical part of our cognitive development. It plays a crucial role in shaping our memory and learning capabilities and has profound implications for our overall cognition.
Yet, as we continue to tread further into the digital frontier, traditional methods of writing—handwriting, in particular—have taken a back seat, substituted by the keyboard or touchscreen. This shift raises crucial questions about how these changes are influencing our brains, our ability to learn, and our cognitive abilities.
The extraordinary value of handwriting
Long before the advent of keyboards and touchscreens, there was handwriting. From ancient civilizations, handwriting has endured through millennia, evolving from primitive pictograms etched on stone tablets to sophisticated scripts inked on parchment and paper. These handwritten records not only bear witness to history but also highlight the human instinct to communicate and comprehend the world.
Even in our youngest years, handwriting forms an integral part of our learning. The physical act of forming letters and words on paper goes beyond merely creating visible language. It sparks a complex interplay of motor skills, visual processing, and cognitive engagement that can significantly enhance our ability to learn and remember.
Handwriting isn't merely a means of communication; it's an experience that profoundly shapes our cognition.
When we write by hand, we engage more deeply with the information. It's a slower, more deliberate process, giving our brain more time to encode the data and create lasting memory connections. Moreover, handwriting taps into what is known as multimodal perception—simultaneously engaging our senses of sight, sound, and touch. This rich sensory input creates numerous pathways in our brains, strengthening our ability to recall the information later.
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However, in the face of rapid digitalization, handwriting has been increasingly sidelined. This is particularly true in my own case! Despite the cognitive benefits of this traditional practice, it has been largely replaced by the efficiency and convenience of digital writing tools. The keyboard and touchscreen have ushered in a new era of written communication, leaving us to grapple with the implications of this seismic shift on our memory, cognition, and learning.
I rarely write notes by hand anymore. And when I do, I struggle to read them back!
Not my type
Instead of handwriting, typing has become a fundamental part of our everyday lives. Today, we spend hours typing away at our keyboards or tapping on our touchscreens, creating a ripple effect on our cognitive processing.
Typing, undeniably, comes with its own set of advantages. Even without special training (and with the clumsy Qwerty keyboard) it's fast and efficient allowing us to capture a large amount of information in a relatively short period. Moreover, with the ease of editing and reformatting, typing encourages experimentation with ideas and structures.
Yet, when it comes to memory and learning, typing notes is not the equivalent of handwriting: we mostly transcribe information verbatim without fully engaging with the content. This passive transcription can lead to superficial processing of information, limiting its imprint on our memory. When writing by hand, even if we are not paying full attention to the details of the content, we find that the more complex motor functions and cognitive processes (including the formation of each letter, the physical act of writing, and the visual feedback from seeing words appear on paper) make us interact with the information in a more engaged way, which in turn aids memory retention and understanding.
Despite these challenges, there are ways to make typing a more active and engaging process. Paraphrasing instead of transcribing verbatim, visualizing the content, and speaking it aloud can help enhance understanding and memory retention.
Diagramming or mind-mapping, even on a digital canvas, can also mimic some of the cognitive benefits of handwriting: it’s an excellent complement to digital notetaking. This practice can help engage the brain in different ways and foster a deeper understanding of the material. By physically drawing connections between ideas, we activate spatial and visual processing areas of the brain, enhancing memory and recall. Additionally, creating a mind map can serve as a form of active learning, as you're not just transcribing information, but also analyzing it, figuring out relationships, and organizing it in a way that makes sense to you. So even in a digital age, keeping a pen and some paper handy can be a great strategy for effective learning.
Is generative AI degenerative?
As if this cognitive shift has not been enough, now there’s a new disruption to our ways of thinking and remembering: generative AI.
At first glance, one might assume that AI, with its ability to generate convincing content and provide instant information, could exacerbate the issues we face with digital learning. But I am not so pessimistic. If used wisely, generative AI could enhance our cognitive engagement and learning process. But we do need to learn the techniques.
Just like typing, the key lies in how we interact with the AI. If we passively consume the information it generates, we might not reap significant cognitive benefits.
However, if we actively engage with the AI—prompting it, questioning it, debating its outputs—we're not just consuming information, we're interacting with it.
Generative AI could also assist with active reading and note-taking. It can help summarize lengthy texts, generate questions for review, or even create flashcards for memorization. By prompting deep engagement with the material, generative AI can make digital learning a more active and effective process.
Strategies for the digital frontier
It's crucial to remember that the tools we use are not inherently good or bad for our cognition. Rather, it's how we use them that matters. Whether it's a pen, a keyboard, or a generative AI model, the key to effective learning lies in active engagement with the content.
While handwriting might hold a revered place in cognitive development, we must also acknowledge the realities of our digital age. Traditional handwriting has largely been replaced by typing, and that shift is likely to continue. Yet, this doesn't have to spell a decline in our memory and learning capabilities.
By consciously applying strategies to make typing a more active process, we can foster deeper cognitive engagement. Similarly, by using generative AI as a tool to promote active reading and learning, we can leverage the benefits of technology while mitigating potential drawbacks.
Here are some patterns techniques you can use with generative AI:
Active reading: You can use AI to help you summarize key points from a text or document. By instructing the AI to provide a summary, you can check your understanding against it. Similarly, you can ask the AI to generate questions from the text, which will encourage you to think more deeply about the content.
Explanation: If you’re having trouble understanding a concept, you can ask a generative AI to explain it. Even better, you can keep asking it to explain in different ways until you find one that clicks. You could ask it to explain it for a non-technical reader, a sixteen-year-old or even a ten-year-old. You’ll be fascinated by what it generates, and this active engagement will aid your retention.
Paraphrasing and Summarization: Generative AI can help rephrase complex ideas or summarize long pieces of text - ask it to summarize as bullet points, for example - helping to improve comprehension and retention.
Discussion: Sometimes, just the act of explaining something to someone else can help reinforce understanding. You can use AI almost conversationally as a discussion partner, explaining concepts to it in your words to see if you have understood. Or have it generate potential counterarguments or different perspectives.
Review and Quiz Yourself: You can use AI to generate quizzes based on your notes or study materials. These quizzes can help reinforce what you've learned and identify any areas you might need to revisit.
With this range of strategies available, I am not pessimistic about the use of AI. I personally think young people learning today will have a wonderful time, exploring human knowledge with more accessibility, greater insight and more fun than ever before.
And in case you’re wondering, I typed all this, myself. But I still have my elegant German pen, sitting patiently on my desk … for mind-mapping.