When I was in high school and college, studying for exams became an all-important activity as the end of each semester loomed. What I discovered, and what no teacher ever taught me, was that if I spent time writing down the key concepts, facts, etc. that I needed to remember for each exam, I would remember them. Just reading and trying to commit to memory was nowhere near as effective as writing them down as I studied.
Why was this? At that time, I had no idea – I just knew it worked. What I have come to understand since is that there is an amazing connection between writing and a number of brain functions that help us remember, but that also contribute to a number of other critical aspects of thinking and learning.
That part of the brain that is most associated with speaking and writing is the frontal lobe. The other functions that this lobe performs are in the areas of movement, judgement/evaluation, planning, reasoning, and problem-solving. Psychiatrists and neurologists say that this is the lobe where executive decision-making functions occur.
The other part of the brain related to writing is the parietal lobe – it interprets words and language, among other things.
At the base of the brain is a group of cells called the reticular activating system (RAS). It acts as a filter for the information the brain requires to process and to focus on what is coming in. So, when I was focusing on the content I needed to study and writing it down as I did so, the RAS was triggered to pay attention and send that information up to the parietal and frontal lobes. Finally, the answer about studying for those exams.
Emotional Benefits of Writing
Many of us have had this experience. We cannot fall asleep because our brains are busy recalling upsetting events of the day or worrying about events and/or tasks for tomorrow. Researchers have found that if we just get up and write these things down, there is the emotional effect of releasing them and we are then able to fall asleep.
This general concept has been reinforced by other research on patients that have suffered trauma and PTSD. Those who are able to write about their experiences have been able to calm themselves.
The research on the calming effects of writing should reinforce the journaling activity that many teachers use in their classrooms today.
Storytelling and Memory
There is a neurological answer for why we remember stories more than just facts.
When we listen to a lecture or are provided even a visual, such as a PowerPoint presentation, there are two parts of the brain that are activated – the Brocas’s and the Wernicke’s. These areas process language – turning words into meaning.
When we listen to stories, however, many other parts of our brains are activated, such as motor cortex and sensory response. We are thus experiencing rather than simply processing language. The same holds true for writing. If we can make up stories about what we want to remember, and write those stories down, we will remember far better and more.
Intellectual and Cognitive Impact of Writing
We remember our college years – especially those essays and papers that. Students who were not skilled writers or translators were always looking for services like the word point to help them out. Unfortunately, they missed opportunities to improve cognitive functions by not practicing writing themselves. Here are the intellectual brain activities that are stimulated through the writing process:
These are all skills that carryover to the real world of work and living as students move into adulthood and all of the responsibilities that come with it. We learn, for example, to list the pros and cons before we make major decisions; we learn to plan and organize our workday task responsibilities; we participate in problem-solving with our peers at work.
Emotional Benefits of Writing
While research has discovered a beneficial effect for victims of trauma, many highly successful people write daily (e.g., Richard Branson and Warren Buffett) because they get very specific emotional benefits.
Where is the Downside?
The short answer is there is none. Even if you are not an accomplished writer, the very act of writing activates so many brain functions, that only good can come of it. It doesn’t matter so much what you write – it matters that you just do it.