Digital technology has immense advantages, but there are still cases where more traditional techniques remain superior. For example, it seems that to remember your notes it is better to use pen and paper than digital counterparts such as a tablet and smartphone. According to Japanese researchers, this is because handwritten notes on paper contain more unique information, which provides a stronger memory.

You often see it in meetings: while one scribbles frantically in a notebook, another lustily taps a tablet. But what is the best way to capture information and store it in your head? This has long been discussed, including within the scientific world. A small study, conducted at the University of Tokyo, certainly worked in favor of the classic approach with pen and paper.

Create fictitious scheduling

Forty-eight university students participated in the Japanese study. They all had to read a fictional conversation between different students, who discussed their academic and personal plans for the next two months. They had to convert all that information into a fictitious schedule as well as possible and were divided into three groups for this task. One group used a paper calendar and pen, another a tablet and stylus (touchscreen pen) and the latter group a smartphone. Those with a tablet and smartphone had a specific calendar app at their disposal.

Faster and more accurate

Firstly, the users of a paper calendar finished their notes earlier than the others. They took an average of 11 minutes, while tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users 16 minutes.

Notes with pen and paper also helped to better remember the noted information. This was evident when the participants had to answer questions about the fictitious planning an hour after the first exercise, while their brain activity was recorded in a so-called MRI scanner. Not only could the users of pen and paper better answer the simplest questions, the analysis of their brain activity also pointed to more accurate memories.

Complex spatial information

According to the researchers, notes on paper are stored more sharply in memory because they contain more complex spatial information. On physical paper, notes are, as it were, more tangible and irregular, with details such as folded corners. For example, with a paper calendar, you can sometimes actually visualize a certain page with your eyes closed and the notes you had written in the margin. With digital documents, this is more difficult, because you scroll up and down and therefore the pages do not have a fixed position, and because the pages have a standardized format of text and image size.

The researchers therefore advise to use paper notebooks to learn and remember information. If you still want to work digitally, it’s a good idea to personalize the pages of your documents by highlighting, underlining and circling things, drawing arrows, and adding color-coded notes. Such spatial enrichment of the digital text may improve your memory ability.

Stephan Meed

A southern gentleman at heart, Stephan is a man you'll find mudding, off-roading, and fishing on a typical weekend. However, a nutritionist by profession, he is also passionate about fitness and health through natural means. He writes mostly health-related content for the Scientific Origin.