Tag Archives: #writing

Study Shows Stronger Brain Activity After Writing on Paper Than On Tablet or Smartphone (Neuroscience)

Unique, complex information in analog methods likely gives brain more details to trigger memory

A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates has revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.

“Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall,” said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo and corresponding author of the research recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The research was completed with collaborators from the NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting.

Contrary to the popular belief that digital tools increase efficiency, volunteers who used paper completed the note-taking task about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.

Although volunteers wrote by hand both with pen and paper or stylus and digital tablet, researchers say paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper. Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.

“Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize,” said Sakai.

In the study, a total of 48 volunteers read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for two months in the near future, including 14 different class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments. Researchers performed pre-test analyses to ensure that the volunteers, all 18–29 years old and recruited from university campuses or NTT offices, were equally sorted into three groups based on memory skills, personal preference for digital or analog methods, gender, age and other aspects.

Volunteers then recorded the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone and a touch-screen keyboard. There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules, without spending extra time to memorize the schedule.

After one hour, including a break and an interference task to distract them from thinking about the calendar, volunteers answered a range of simple (When is the assignment due?) and complex (Which is the earlier due date for the assignments?) multiple choice questions to test their memory of the schedule. While they completed the test, volunteers were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which measures blood flow around the brain. This is a technique called functional MRI (fMRI), and increased blood flow observed in a specific region of the brain is a sign of increased neuronal activity in that area.

Participants who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar within about 11 minutes. Tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users took about 16 minutes. Volunteers who used analog methods in their personal life were just as slow at using the devices as volunteers who regularly use digital tools, so researchers are confident that the difference in speed was related to memorization or associated encoding in the brain, not just differences in the habitual use of the tools.

Volunteers who used analog methods scored better than other volunteers only on simple test questions. However, researchers say that the brain activation data revealed significant differences.

Volunteers who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus — an area known to be important for memory and navigation. Researchers say that the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.

“Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” Sakai explained.

Researchers say that personalizing digital documents by highlighting, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, handwriting color-coded notes in the margins, adding virtual sticky notes, or other types of unique mark-ups can mimic analog-style spatial enrichment that may enhance memory.

Although they have no data from younger volunteers, researchers suspect that the difference in brain activation between analog and digital methods is likely to be stronger in younger people.

“High school students’ brains are still developing and are so much more sensitive than adult brains,” said Sakai.

Although the current research focused on learning and memorization, the researchers encourage using paper for creative pursuits as well.

“It is reasonable that one’s creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored with stronger learning and more precisely retrieved from memory. For art, composing music, or other creative works, I would emphasize the use of paper instead of digital methods,” said Sakai.

This research is a peer-reviewed, experimental study on people published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Funding was provided by the Consortium for Applied Neuroscience at NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, Inc. The funder was not involved in the study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the research paper, or the decision to submit it for publication.

Featured image: Cartoon illustration of an open spiral bound paper notebook with blue and red pens (left side) and a digital tablet with a stylus tool (right side). The words “Analog vs. Digital” are in black text at the top of the image.


Keita Umejima, Takuya Ibaraki, Takahiro Yamazaki, and Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, “Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience: March 19, 2021, doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158.
Link (Publication)

Provided by University of Tokyo

Neuronal Circuits for Fine Motor Skills (Neuroscience)

Writing, driving a screw or throwing darts are only some of the activities that demand a high level of skill. How the brain masters such exquisite movements has now been described in the journal “Nature” by a team of researchers at the University of Basel and the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research. A map of brainstem circuits reveals which neurons control the fine motor skills of the arm and hand.

Eating spaghetti requires a high level of fine motor skills. © University of Basel, Biozentrum

Picking up a pen and writing our name or reaching for a fork to eat spaghetti with tomato sauce are things we take for granted. However, holding a pen properly or bringing spaghetti to the mouth without making a mess requires precise arm movements and a high level of skill.

Underlying all our motor behavior is a perfect interplay between neurons in the brain, the spinal cord, and the muscles. But which neuronal circuits control the fine motor skills of the arms, hands and fingers? Prof. Silvia Arber’s team has been addressing this question in recent work. The neurobiologists who work at both the Biozentrum of the University of Basel and at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) have been investigating how the nervous system controls motor behavior for many years.

Neurons in the brainstem control fine motor skills

Using a mouse model, the researchers have been able to demonstrate that a specific region of the brainstem is responsible for various fine motor activities of the forelimbs. For their investigations they applied so-called optogenetic and viral methods in order to mark neurons and observe their activity. This enabled the team to localize four neuronal subpopulations in this region and correlate with specific functions. For example, one group of neurons was able to elicit forelimb reaching, while another group controls handling of the food.

In terms of evolution, the brainstem is the oldest part of the brain and is the direct extension of the spinal cord. The brainstem is an important switchboard between higher order movement planning centers in the brain and the executive circuits in the spinal cord. In the spinal cord, information streams about movement ultimately reach motor neurons that are directly connected to muscles cells. These in turn control movement through contraction. It has only recently been discovered that the brainstem consists of many areas containing functionally specialized neuronal populations, engaged with the control of diverse forms of body movements.

Map of brainstem circuits for fine motor skills

In their study, Arber’s team has defined the organization of the neurons in one of those brainstem regions called the “lateral rostral medulla» (latRM) and traced their communication pathways. This enabled the researchers to associate different behavioral activities with specific groups of latRM neurons. “Relatively simple forelimb actions such as reaching for food are accomplished by latRM neurons with direct projections to the spinal cord,” explains the first author Ludwig Ruder.

Executing more complex forelimb movements, which also involve the fingers, i.e. grasping or bringing a piece of food to the mouth, are controlled by latRM neurons with connections to neurons in other brainstem regions. “The connections and circuits within the brainstem are indispensable for more complex motor skills,” says Arber. “The neuronal populations we identified in the latRM very specifically control motor skills of the forelimbs. Notably, the generation of complex and precise forelimb movements such as throwing, grasping or writing require the communication between different brainstem regions.”

Control of motor actions is similar in man and animals

The division of neuronal populations according to different forms of movements based on spatial organization and connectivity provides insights into the function of the brainstem and the control of motor behavior, in this case fine motor skills of the arm and hand. Many neuronal circuits of the brainstem are similar in humans and animals. It is therefore possible to hypothesize which neuronal populations control which movements or how diseases or injury may impair fine motor skills or other behaviors in humans.

Reference: Ludwig Ruder, Riccardo Schina, Harsh Kanodia, Sara Valencia-Garcia, Chiara Pivetta and Silvia Arber, “A functional map for diverse forelimb actions within brainstem circuitry”, Nature (2021), doi:10.1038/s41586-020-03080-z https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-03080-z

Provided by University of Basel

Red And Black Ink From Egyptian Papyri Unveil Ancient Writing Practices (Archeology)

Scientists led by the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, Grenoble, France and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have discovered the composition of red and black inks in ancient Egyptian papyri from circa 100-200 AD, leading to different hypotheses about writing practices. The analysis, based on synchrotron techniques, shows that lead was probably used as a dryer rather than as a pigment, similar to its usage in 15th century Europe during the development of oil paintings. They publish their results today in PNAS.

Detail of a medical treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 930) from the Tebtunis temple library with headings marked in red ink. Image credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. ©The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used black ink for writing the main body of text, while red ink was often used to highlight headings, instructions or keywords. During the last decade, many scientific studies have been conducted to elucidate the invention and history of ink in ancient Egypt and in the Mediterranean cultures, for instance ancient Greece and Rome.

A team of scientists led by the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, and the University of Copenhagen used the powerful X-rays of the ESRF to study the red and black ink in papyri from the only large-scale institutional library known to have survived from ancient Egypt: the Tebtunis temple library. The samples studied in this research project are exceptional, not only because they derive from the famous Tebtunis temple library, but also because the analysis includes as many as 12 ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments, all inscribed with red and black inks.

“By applying 21st century, state-of-the-art technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to the unveiling the origin of writing practices.”, explains Marine Cotte, scientist at the ESRF and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“Something very striking was that we found that lead was added to the ink mixture, not as a dye, but as a dryer of the ink, so that the ink would stay on the papyrus”, says Cotte. The researchers came to this conclusion because they did not find any other type of lead, like lead white or minium, which should be present if lead was used as a pigment. “The fact that the lead was not added as a pigment but as a dryer infers that the ink had quite a complex recipe and could not be made by just anyone.”, adds Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen and co-corresponding author .

A papyrus fragment from a long astrological treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 89) from the Tebtunis temple library and the ESRF X-ray fluorescence maps showing the distribution of iron (red) and lead (blue) in the red letters that write out the ancient Egyptian word for “star”. Image credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF. ©The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF.

A surprising fact is that the ink recipe can be related to paint practices developed many centuries later during the Renaissance. “In the XV Century, when artists rediscovered the oil painting in Europe, the challenge was to dry the oil in a reasonable amount of time”, says Marine Cotte. “Painters realised that some lead compounds could be used as efficient dryers”, she explains.

This finding was only possible thanks to the different techniques the team used at the ESRF’s beamline ID21 to study the fragments of papyri. They combined several synchrotron techniques (micro X-ray fluorescence, micro X-ray diffraction and micro-infrared spectroscopy) to probe the chemical composition from the millimetre to the sub-micrometre scale to provide information not only on the elemental, but also on the molecular and structural composition of the inks. The scientists discovered that lead was associated to different elements: a complex mixture of lead phosphates, potassium lead sulphates, lead carboxylates and lead chlorides.

Expectedly, the scientists found that the red colour in the ink is given by the ochre. More surprisingly, they discovered that this red pigment is present as coarse particles while the lead compounds are diffused into papyrus cells, at the micrometre scale, wrapping the cell walls, and creating, at the letter scale, a coffee-ring effect around the iron particles, as if the letters were outlined. “We think that lead must have been present in a finely ground and maybe in a soluble state and that when applied, big particles stayed in place, whilst the smaller ones ‘diffused’ around them”, explains Cotte. In these halos, lead is associated with sulphur and phosphorus. The origin of these lead sulphates and phosphates, i.e. were they initially present in ink or did they form during ink alteration, remains an open question. If they were part of the original ink, understanding their role in the writing process is also puzzling and the motivation of on-going research.

The team that came to the ESRF brings together chemists, physicists and Egyptologists. Sine Larsen, former director of research at the ESRF and currently Emerita professor at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen, was the mastermind that put the group together, back in 2016, and has coordinated it ever since. Several publications later, the collaboration keeps going strong. “I am fascinated by this subject of research, but also by the very diverse profiles that make up this truly interdisciplinary and successful collaboration”, she says.

References: Thomas Christiansen, Marine Cotte, Wout de Nolf, Elouan Mouro, Juan Reyes-Herrera, Steven de Meyer, Frederik Vanmeert, Nati Salvadó, Victor Gonzalez, Poul Erik Lindelof, Kell Mortensen, Kim Ryholt, Koen Janssens, Sine Larsen, “Insights into the composition of ancient Egyptian red and black inks on papyri achieved by synchrotron-based microanalyses”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2020, 202004534; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2004534117

Provided by European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

There’s No Single Gene For left-handedness: At Least 41 Regions Of DNA Are Involved (Biology)

Most people consistently use the same hand to do tasks that require skill and control such as writing or threading a needle. We know genetics plays a big part in which hand a person prefers, but it has been difficult to identify the exact genes responsible.

To find out more, researchers from University Of Queensland analysed the DNA of more than 1.7 million people and discovered 41 regions of the genome associated with being left handed and another seven associated with being ambidextrous.

What makes people left-handed?

About 88% of people prefer to use their right hand for complex tasks, around 10% prefer their left hand, and the other 2% report they do not have a preference and can use either hand. Hand preference develops so early that it can be seen in the womb.

Handedness tends to stabilise around the time children are learning to draw. In the absence of injury or training it remains constant throughout life. Evidence from historic human populations suggests it has been this way for hundreds of thousands of years.

Research examining patterns of handedness in twins and families shows most of the variation is down to non-genetic factors, such as training and the environment in which they gain early motor skills. However, genetics does play a significant role.

There is no single gene for handedness

Since the mid-1980s more than 100 journal articles have explored the idea that a single gene might influence handedness. These theories suggested one variant of the gene would bias an individual towards right-handedness, while the alternate variant led to handedness being randomly determined.

While there have been many theories attempting to explain different human characteristics via single genes, in recent years researchers of University of Queensland have discovered that the reality is often much more complicated. More recent research uses genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to look for a relationship between a trait of interest and the number of copies of a genetic variant someone has. These analyses are run for millions of variants located across the genome.

These genome-wide studies have shown that almost all human traits are influenced by many hundreds or thousands of genetic variants. Often these variants are located between genes whose purpose is not clearly identifiable, in what used to be called “junk DNA”.

GWAS has also shown most traits are influenced by large numbers of genes which each contribute a very small effect, rather than a single gene which has a large effect. To track these small effects, large collaborative studies with many participants are required in order to identify the individual genetic variants involved.

What GWAS reveals about handedness?

In 2009 researchers started a project involving researchers from around the world to hunt for genetic variants that influence handedness using GWAS. They did not recruit participants based on their handedness, so the number of left-handed people was relatively small. As a result, they have only recently gathered enough to undertake robust analyses.

Their study brought together analyses of data from 1,766,671 people. Of these people, 194,198 were left-handed and 37,637 were ambidextrous. They found 41 regions of the genome associated with left-handedness and seven regions associated with ambidexterity.

Many of the regions of the genome associated with left-handedness contained genes that code for microtubule proteins. These proteins play important roles during development in the migration of neurons and in the ability of the brain to adapt to changes in the environment.

Interestingly, genes that influence other asymmetries in the body, such as which side of the body the heart is located on, were not associated with handedness in our study.

Another important finding was that there was little overlap between the regions of the genome associated with left-handedness and those associated with ambidexterity. This suggests that ambidexterity is more complicated than they previously thought. The mechanisms that influence the direction of hand preference might be different from those that influence the degree of hand preference.

These findings give researchers promising new leads but more work is needed to identify further genetic variants that influence handedness. There is also a long way to go before we understand how these variants play a role in someone becoming right-handed, left-handed or ambidextrous.

References: Cuellar-Partida, G., Tung, J.Y., Eriksson, N. et al. Genome-wide association study identifies 48 common genetic variants associated with handedness. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-00956-y link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-00956-y

Provided by University Of Queensland