The Brain Connection between Writing and Remembering

The Brain Connection between
Writing and Remembering

(Write it Down to Remember it!)

How a message from Dr. David Jeremiah, Turning Point Ministries, put Barbara on a new path of discovery in how to train her mind to remember things she could never remember before.

Photo by Mikhail Pavstyuk on Unsplash

IF YOU CAN’T REMEMBER names of people, places, or ordinary things—or Bible verses, or the words of a favorite song or hymn, as I have been trying to do lately—you are not alone. My articles on the aging brain (linked to below) contain a wealth of scientific information about memory loss and forgetfulness that will be helpful to many, but if you want to do something about your memory problem, try this simple solution that’s working for me.

This all started one Sunday in August 2021 when I was watching a sermon on TV by David Jeremiah of Turning Point Ministries titled “The Written Word.” The title alone captured my attention, and Jeremiah’s biblical teaching was, as usual, what I needed to hear.

I grabbed pen and paper to take notes as soon as Pastor Jeremiah said he couldn’t remember anything unless he wrote it out by hand. “I have discovered the important benefit of writing things out—writing them down. “ He went on to say that in his study one will find a stack of tablets, “a special kind of tablet” he has to have, one that he drives his secretaries nuts trying to keep him supplied with them because they’re so hard to find.

He explained that when he’s reading a book, he grabs a new tablet and begins to copy out the parts that are important to him, sometimes copying much of a book itself because it is so important to his study or research. “Once I do that,” he said, “I hardly ever forget what’s in that book, and sometimes can tell you exactly where it is on a page.”

His message hit a hot button with me because I’ve been apologizing to people for years about my inability to remember their names a week after I’ve met them. It’s probably because I didn’t do that associate-their-name-with-something-else thing at the time, when all I really should have done was write their name on paper to begin with. But one doesn’t always have pen and notepad at hand.

Jeremiah told his congregation that he writes his Sunday sermons completely by hand, adding, “You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the word computer.” You need to watch the video (see link below) to get all the important benefits of handwriting that he has discovered, especially how it has helped him gain new clarity about certain Bible verses and seeing things that he could not see when he simply read them from the Bible. I loved the part where he said God had commanded Moses to completely write by hand the complete Book of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament)—a challenging task in those days when he had to write on papyrus scrolls with a quill pen and ink of his own making. (You’ll find many articles on the web about writing materials in the time of Moses.)

This sermon suddenly made me see that if I wanted to remember people’s names, or a Bible verse, or the words to a song or favorite hymn, I only had to write them out—write them down to create a visual memory that would otherwise be impossible to do.

My Memory Breakthrough

I’VE WRITTEN AT LENGTH in another article (see below) about why we can’t remember names, but I wonder how many are like me in that it’s not just people’s names that I can’t quickly recall sometimes, but names of places, brand names, or the name of a favorite recipe. I’ve even forgotten the names of some common kitchen gadgets. Like the time I tried to remember the name of the one I’d lost that I wanted to replace, one used to remove the green tops from strawberries (duh! a “strawberry huller”); and the day I found this rubber-tube-thing with openings on both ends in a kitchen drawer and couldn’t remember what it was used for.

Amazon to the rescue this time. After trying several keywords I learned this was a “garlic peeler skin remover roller.” (Bet you couldn’t have remembered that name either.) I should have remembered buying it some thirty years earlier because I’ve always used fresh garlic in my cooking. But somewhere along the way when life got difficult, I began to cut off the ends with a knife and peel cloves that way because it was faster. I’d put the garlic roller peeler in a drawer and couldn’t remember what it was when it turned up again a couple decades later. How true the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Clearly our memory plays tricks on us all the time. 

I got a flash of insight on the importance of writing things down to remember them the day I was rewriting and updating my again brain article. I suddenly realized that there had to be a scientific reason for why the brain reacts differently to handwriting versus typing something and reading it back. So I did an initial search for “does writing something by hand help memory?” Surprise! Got 574 million web pages with a summary at top saying, “Writing by hand forces your brain to process information in a more detailed way, which helps you successfully load that information into your memory.” The first article was “Why You Remember Things Better When You Write Them Down.”

The answer given in this article led me to search for “handwriting activates different part of the brain,” which yielded 107 million results with a top article being “Writing by Hand Boosts Brain Activity and Fine Motor Skills, Study Shows.”

I became more convinced about the logic of all this research when I had an accidental “memory test” one morning. As I was getting ready to do a run to Trader Joe’s for a few items, I pulled the scribbled list I’d been making during the week and could hardly read it because my handwriting has become deplorable after a lifetime of writing first on a typewriter and then a computer keyboard. So I neatly rewrote the list of items in the order in which I’d find them in the aisles of the store.

And then, being absent-minded as usual, I left the house with the list still on the table. It was raining when I got to the store and I didn’t want to go back to get it, so I just sat there for a few minutes trying to visualize what I’d written on that list and was surprised to realize I did have a visual image of it in my mind. When I got home and checked the list of a dozen items, I was surprised to find I’d remembered all but one item. Aha! I’m on to something here, I thought.

A New Experiment

ALL THE RESEARCH I’d done for my two brain-related articles, plus what I’d just learned from my grocery-list-memory-test prompted me to try something I’d never done before. With church closed during the pandemic, I began to sing hymns at home on Sundays and when I did Bible study. Now I decided to memorize all four verses of a favorite hymn. By writing them down and reading them every morning for a week, I firmly planted those words in my brain. Voila! That was a game changer for me. A month later I could still remember all the words and sing the song from memory.

I picked another favorite hymn and memorized that one too. So now I’m starting a handwritten “Journal of Hymns I Love,” plus a collection of my favorite Bible verses handwritten on 3×5 cards that I can easily organize in one of my old recipe boxes. There are many verses I’ve lived by for years and know at least in part, but I never made an effort to remember both chapter and verse. Now I understand that reading something in the Bible any trying to memorize it from a print page is completely different from first writing it out and planting a new visual image of the same words in my mind.

I’ve kept handwritten journals all my life, but through the years my handwriting has become sloppy because I’m always in a hurry. I hope now that by writing more slowly and with more focus in my two new “handwriting endeavors” that perhaps I can get back the lovely handwriting I used to have. My sisters still write beautifully because they haven’t spent most of their life typing everything. It’s always a bonus when we can accomplish two things with one action,

Since I’ve already made a little progress in improving my memory without any brain supplements or a change in my diet, I’m hopeful that I’ll have a good-news memory report on this topic at a later date. Meanwhile, your comments would be appreciated on this and other articles related to it.

Related Video: Dr. David Jeremiah’s sermon, “The Written Word,” which inspired this writing.

Related Articles:

The Aging Brain: The Latest Scientific Research on Forgetfulness and Memory Loss. Barbara’s research from leading scientists and experts on how our brain works, memory loss and forgetfulness in aging brains, latest brain supplements guide, and humor about the “wretched road to decrepitude.” 

How to Enrich and Empower Your Brain as You Age. Get the latest research on aging brains, learn why the “wisdom of age” is real and what was learned from studies of Albert Einstein’s brain; plus the brain benefits of eating more veggies and having a little red wine too.

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One Comment

  1. Reply
    Duane Keilstrup January 19, 2022

    Very insightful article. It reminds me of an anonymous quote that goes, “The pen was the first computer.” That comparison degrades the pen. The computer, while serving writing production in countless and marvelous ways, diminishes brain/memory function and value in ways that I suspect Moses can tell us more about when we join him in heaven.

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