Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cursive Writing and the Extended Mind

Recently, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne gave his personal reaction to children not being taught cursive writing in school. This is a growing trend in North American schools, a trend that Coyne finds alarming. Why? Because Coyne recognizes that writing is not just done ’in the head’, but is an activity that involves interacting with particular external media.  He writes, “How we write, in other words, affects what we write. You compose in a different way using pen and ink than you do on a computer.”

I must admit that I do not find myself in agreement with some of Coyne’s specific claims about why writing cursively is different than composing at a keyboard. For instance, he describes typing as ‘file retrieval’, because you have to remember where a particular letter is on the keyboard. In contrast, “With handwriting, you create the letters anew each time, using much more complex motor skills. Whether it’s the flowing motion of the arm, or the feel of the page under your hand, or the aesthetic satisfaction of a well-turned ‘f’, it seems to engage the more intuitive, right-brain aspects of cognition.” As a cognitive scientist, I am reluctant to appeal to intuition or to right-brain processing.

As an embodied cognitive scientist, though, I am in complete agreement with Coyne’s view that how we write affects what we write. The extended mind hypothesis makes the claim that the external world is a fundamental component of our mentality; change that world and you change the mind. Coyne provide some wonderful examples of how his own writing processes are affected by constraints imposed by external media, and I see these as compelling examples of the extended mind hypothesis in action. For instance, Coyne takes advantage of the extended mind to deal with writer’s block: “Often when I am stuck at the keyboard, unable to find my way out of whatever mental cul-de-sac I have put myself in, I will pick up a pen and start writing — and the words start to come again.”

My own experience with the physical act of writing complements Coyne’s. In my final year of high school, I took a typing class as an option, and have long since thought that it was the most important part of my high school education. But as an undergraduate student, and as a graduate student, typing was never my first line of attack. Instead, I would take lecture notes by hand, and would later study for exams by typing my notes up. The first draft of any paper that I wrote was created in longhand. I would then edit that handwritten manuscript, and only when I was happy with it would I type the final version. It wasn’t until my last year as a PhD student that I learned to compose at the keyboard because of the newfound pressure of ‘publish or perish’. Cursive drafts simply took too long to produce.

I am now quite expert in composing manuscripts at the keyboard; most of my current writing is done on a laptop, sitting in a reclining chair in my living room with my dog sleeping on my legs. When I encounter writer’s block, I -- like Coyne -- deal with it by changing the medium. But I don’t go back to longhand. Instead, I’m more likely to activate my speech recognition software and dictate to my computer. (I used this software to compose this very post.)This approach does make me think about writing in a different way, but one more important thing that I’ve noticed is that it changes my writing style. Coyne’s column makes me wonder what would happen to my writing style if I went back to my old ways and pulled out pencil and paper.
Coyne’s column also makes me wonder about the research that has been conducted on the effects of writing medium on writing ability. In a recent post, I suggested that the embodied experimental psychologists involved with the Canadian Society for Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science were missing the key implications of the extended mind hypothesis. Does removing cursive writing from the school curriculum impact the thought processes involved in converting our thoughts into text? I think that I’m going to explore the existing literature on this issue; this seems exactly like the sort of applied problem that is crying out for extensive contributions from embodied cognitive science.


  1. I think The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge discusses the differences in brain processes between handwriting and typing.

  2. Coyne makes a gross error in forgetting that printing (by hand) IS still taught everywhere. All of the advantages he ascribes to cursive are no less true of simple printing.

  3. Interesting write-up! Writing is an art form that reaches a multitude of people from all walks of life, different

    cultures, and age group. As a writer, it is not about what you want. esl idioms