bodily movement

muscles remember better than our brains -- use gestures and bodily movement to lighten the demands on your memory

Better learning through handwriting

One of the points I mention in my book on notetaking is that the very act of taking notes helps us remember — it’s not simply about providing yourself with a record. There are a number of reasons for this, but a recent study bears on one of them. The researchers were interested in whether physically writing by hand has a different effect than typing on a keyboard.

In a fascinating experiment, adults were asked to learn to write in an unknown alphabet, with around twenty letters. One group was taught to write by hand, while another group used a keyboard. Participants were tested on their fluency and recall after three and six weeks. Those who had learned the letters by handwriting were significantly better on all tests. Moreover, Broca's area, a brain region involved in language, was active when this group were recognizing the letters, but not among those who had learned by typing on a keyboard.

The findings point to the importance of sensorimotor processes in processes we have typically regarded as primarily intellectual.

I recently reported on another finding concerning handwriting — that the memory-blocking effect of exam anxiety could be overcome by the simple strategy of writing out your anxieties just before the exam. It’s also interesting in this context to remember the research into the benefits of gesturing for reducing the load on your working memory, with consequent assistance for memory, learning and comprehension. The writing effect on exam anxiety is also thought to be related to reducing the load on working memory.

In the case of this latest study, it seems likely that the benefits have more to do with the increased focus on the shape of the letters that occurs when writing by hand, and with the intimate connection between reading and writing.

But the message of these different studies is the same: that we ignore the physical at our peril; that cognition is “embodied cognition”, rooted in our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand.


Mangen, A. & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech, Press release at

Stretching your mind

I recently reported on a finding that older adults whose life-space narrowed to their immediate home were significantly more likely to have a faster rate of global cognitive decline or develop mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s.

Now there are some obvious correlates of being house-bound vs feeling able to travel out of town (such as physical disability), but this relationship between cognitive decline and confined life-space remained after such factors were taken into account. The association is thought to be related to social and mental stimulation.

But I think this association also points to something more specific: the importance of distance, and difference. Different ways of thinking; different contexts. Information (in the broadest sense of the word) that stretches your mind, that gets you out of the grooves of your familiar thoughts.

Last year I reported on a study looking at creativity in problem-solving. That study found that multicultural experiences help you become more creative in solving problems. In particular, creativity was best helped by being reminded of what you’d learned about the underlying meaning or function of behaviors in the multicultural context. In other words, what was important was truly trying to understand behavior that’s very different from your own.

While travelling undoubtedly helps, you don’t need to go to a distant place to learn about different cultures. You can read about them; you can watch movies; you can listen to other people talk about what they know. And if you have those experiences, you can then think about them at any time.

A vital tool in tackling cognitive decline in old age (including the more extreme events of mild cognitive impairment and dementia) is cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve means that your brain can take more damage before it has noticeable effects. Many people have died with advanced Alzheimer’s pathology in their brain who showed no signs of dementia in life!

Cognitive reserve is most often associated with education, but it is also associated with occupation, bilingualism, and perhaps even music. What it comes down to is this: the more redundancy in your brain, the wider and denser the networks, the more able your brain will be to find new paths for old actions, if the old paths are damaged.

The finding that life-space can affect cognitive decline is also a reminder that we are minds in bodies. I have reported on a number of examples of what is called embodied cognition (the benefits of gesture for memory are one example of this). It’s a good general principle to bear in mind — if you fake enjoyment, you may well come to feel it; if you look at the distant hills or over the sea, your mind may think distant thoughts; if you write out your worries, the weight of them on your mind may well lighten.

I made reference to bilingualism. There have been several studies now, that point to the long-term benefits of bilingualism for fighting cognitive decline and dementia. But if you are monolingual, don’t despair. You may never achieve the fluency with another language that you would have if you’d learned it earlier in life, but it’s never too late to gain some benefit! If you feel that learning a new language is beyond you, then you’re thinking of it in the wrong way.

Learning a language is not an either-or task; you don’t have to achieve near-native fluency for there to be a point. If there’s a language you’ve always yearned to know, or a culture you’ve always been interested in, dabble. There are so many resources on the Web nowadays; there has never been a better time to learn a language! You could dabble in a language because you’re interested in a culture, or you could enhance your language learning by learning a little about an associated culture.

And don’t forget that music and math are languages too. It may be too late to become a cello virtuoso, but it’s never too late to learn a musical instrument for your own pleasure. Or if that’s not to your taste, take a music appreciation class, and enrich your understanding of the language of music.

Similarly with math: there’s a thriving little world of “math for fun” out there. Go beyond Sudoku to the world of math puzzles and games and quirky facts.

Perhaps even dance should be included in this. I have heard dance described as a language, and there has been some suggestion that dancing seems to be a physical pursuit of particular cognitive benefit for older adults.

This is not simply about ‘stimulation’. It’s about making new and flexible networks. Remember my recent report on learning speed and flexible networks? The fastest learners were those whose brains showed more flexibility during learning, with different areas of the brain being linked with different regions at different times. The key to that, I suggest, is learning and thinking about things that require your brain to forge many new paths, with speed and distance being positive attributes that you should seek out (music and dance for speed, perhaps; languages and travel for distance).

Interestingly, research into brain development has found that, as a child grows to adulthood, the brain switches from an organization based on local networks based on physical proximity to long-distance networks based on functionality. It would be interesting to know if seniors with cognitive impairment show a shrinking in their networks. Research has shown that the aging brain does tend to show reduced functional connectivity in certain high-level networks, and this connectivity can be improved with regular aerobic exercise, leading to cognitive improvement.

Don’t disdain the benefits of simply daydreaming in your armchair! Daydreaming has been found to activate areas of the brain associated with complex problem-solving, and it’s been speculated that mind wandering evokes a unique mental state that allows otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation. Daydreaming about a more distant place has also been found to impair memory for recently learned words more than if the daydreaming concerned a closer place — a context effect that demonstrates that you can create distance effects in the privacy of your own mind, without having to venture to distant lands.

I’m not saying that such daydreaming has all the benefits of actually going forth and meeting people, seeing new sights. Watching someone practice helps you learn a skill, but it’s not as good as practicing yourself. But the point is, whatever your circumstances, there is plenty you can do to stretch your mind. Why not find yourself a travel book, and get started!

My Memory Journal

Taking things too seriously

I was listening to a podcast the other day. Two psychologists (Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Galonka) were being interviewed about embodied cognition, a topic I find particularly interesting. As an example of what they meant by embodied cognition (something rather more specific than the fun and quirky little studies that are so popular nowadays — e.g., making smaller estimations of quantities when leaning to the left; squeezing a soft ball making it more likely that people will see gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influences them to see the faces as male; holding a heavier clipboard making people more likely to judge currencies as more valuable and their opinions and leaders as more important), they mentioned the outfielder problem. Without getting into the details (if you’re interested, the psychologists have written a good article on it on their blog), here’s what I took away from the discussion:

We used to think that, in order to catch a ball, our brain was doing all these complex math- and physics-related calculations — try programming a robot to do this, and you’ll see just how complex the calculations need to be! And of course this is that much more complicated when the ball isn’t aimed at you and is traveling some distance (the outfielder problem).

Now we realize it’s not that complicated — our outfielder is moving, and this is the crucial point. Apparently (according to my understanding), if he moves at the right speed to make his perception of the ball’s speed uniform (the ball decelerates as it goes up, and accelerates as it comes down, so the catcher does the inverse: running faster as the ball rises and slower as it falls), then — if he times it just right — the ball will appear to be traveling a straight line, and the mental calculation of where it will be is simple.

(This, by the way, is what these psychologists regard as ‘true’ embodied cognition — cognition that is the product of a system that includes the body and the environment as well as the brain.)

This idea suggests two important concepts that are relevant to those wishing to improve their memory:

We (like all animals) have been shaped by evolution to follow the doctrine of least effort. Mental processing doesn’t come cheap! If we can offload some of the work to other parts of the system, then it’s sensible to do so.

In other words, there’s no great moral virtue in insisting on doing everything mentally. Back in the day (2,500 odd years ago), it was said that writing things down would cause people to lose their ability to remember (in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates has the Egyptian god-pharaoh say to Thoth, the god who invented writing, “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”)

This idea has lingered. Many people believe that writing reminders to oneself, or using technology to remember for us, ‘rots our brains’ and makes us incapable of remembering for ourselves.

But here’s the thing: the world is full of information. And it is of varying quality and importance. You might feel that someone should be remembering certain information ‘for themselves’, but this is a value judgment, not (as you might believe) a helpful warning that their brain is in danger of atrophying itself into terminal dysfunction. The fact is, we all choose what to remember and what to forget — we just might not have made a deliberate and conscious choice. Improving your memory begins with this: actually thinking about what you want to remember, and practicing the strategies that will help you do just that.

However, there’s an exception to the doctrine of least effort, and it’s evident among all the animals with sufficient cognitive power — fun. All of us who have enough brain power to spare, engage in play. Play, we are told, has a serious purpose. Young animals play to learn about the world and their own capabilities. It’s a form, you might say, of trial-&-error — but a form with enjoyability built into the system. This enjoyability is vital, because it motivates the organism to persist. And persistence is how we discover what works, and how we get the practice to do it well.

What distinguishes a good outfielder from someone who’s never tried to catch a ball before? Practice. To judge the timing, to get the movement just right — movement which will vary with every ball — you need a lot of practice. You can’t just read about what to do. And that’s true of every physical skill. Less obviously, it’s true of cognitive skills also.

It also ties back to what I was saying about trying to achieve flow. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, it’s probably either too easy or too hard for you. If it’s too easy, try and introduce some challenge into it. If it’s too hard, break it down into simpler components and practice them until you have achieved a higher level of competence on them.

Enjoyability is vital for learning well. So don’t knock fun. Don’t think play is morally inferior. Instead, try and incorporate a playful element into your work and study (there’s a balance, obviously!). If you have hobbies you enjoy, think about elements you can carry across to other activities (if you don’t have a hobby you enjoy, perhaps you should start by finding one!).

So the message for today is: the holy grail in memory and learning is NOT to remember everything; the superior approach to work / study / life is NOT total mastery and serious dedication. An effective memory is one that remembers what you want/need it to remember. Learning occurs through failure. Enjoyability greases the path to the best learning and the most effective activity.

Let focused fun be your mantra.

Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

For example, two experiments of children in late third and early fourth grade, who made mistakes in solving math problems, have found that children told to move their hands when explaining how they’d solve a problem were four times as likely to manually express correct new ways to solve problems as children given no instructions. Even though they didn’t give the right answer, their gestures revealed an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas, and the second experiment showed that gesturing set them up to benefit from subsequent instruction.

And in a demonstration of improved memory, an earlier study had participants watch someone narrating three cartoons. Sometimes the narrator used hand gestures and at other times they did not. The participants were then asked to recall the story. The study found that when the narrator used gestures as well as speech the participants were more likely to accurately remember what actually happened in the story rather than change it in some way.

In another study, in which 40 children and 36 adults were asked to remember a list of letters (adults) or words (children) while explaining how they solved a math problem, both groups remembered significantly more items when they gestured during their math explanations than when they did not gesture.

It’s thought that gesturing helps memory and understanding by lightening the load on working memory while you’re thinking of what to say. Gestures use up visuospatial working memory rather than verbal memory, so essentially what you’re doing is moving part of the information in one limited working memory space into another working memory space (and brain region).

Gesturing begins at an early age, first with pointing and then with more complex gestures. It is interesting to note that several advances in cognitive abilities are displayed first in gesture before later being expressed in speech. Moreover, the early use of gesture is associated with later verbal skill.

For example, research from Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues has found that toddlers (14 months), studied during an hour and a half of play with their parents, used gestures more if they were from better-educated families, and this correlated with significantly greater vocabulary at 4 ½. On average, toddlers from well-educated families used gestures to convey 24 different meanings, while those from less-educated families used gestures to convey only 13. Better-educated parents also used more gestures when interacting with their children.

Another interesting study by the same researchers showed that the number of different meanings conveyed in gesture at 18 months predicted vocabulary at 42 months, while the number of gesture+speech combinations, particularly those conveying sentence-like ideas, predicted sentence complexity.

Some months ago, I read an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about parents communicating with their pre-verbal infants using sign language. I was greatly taken with this idea. Though it sounds, at first blush, to be part of the whole flashcards-for-babies movement, it is something quite different (I do think you need to be very judicious in the ‘hothousing’ of children; there’s more to making a person than stuffing them with knowledge like a foie gras goose). The development of verbal skills requires physical development and control that is beyond babies, but we shouldn’t assume their inability to articulate words means they don’t have the mental capacity for thought.

Nor is there any evidence that teaching them simple signs delays or impedes their verbal development. Indeed, it may help it. It may also help their social development. There’s a lot of frustration in not being able to communicate — surely eliminating, or at least reducing, that frustration is going to have positive effects.

Now this is speculation. At this point we only have anecdotal reports, no research. But we can point to the positive effects of bilingualism to tell us learning two languages is beneficial rather than a hindrance (although children growing up in a truly bilingual household may be a few weeks later in starting to speak), and we know that children’s language skills improve the more time parents spend (positively) interacting with them, and, as we have just discussed, early skill with gestures is associated with better verbal skills later on.

Caregivers of young children who are interested in this can go to: