Paper and pencil better for the brain than software?

Dutch psychologist Christof van Nimwegen posits that paper and pens/pencils boost learning and creative problem solving much more than computers do. Van Nimwegen wrote a PhD dissertation, titled "The paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter-effective", about how software affects brain processes. English professor Michael Leddy summed up the research beautifully in his blog entry about it: "What's crucial of course is not ink or graphite (or paper!) but self-reliance–trusting one's mind rather than the machine." From eNews 2.0:
Van Nimwegen says much software turns us into passive beings, subjected to the whims of computers, randomly clicking on icons and menu options. In the long run, this hinders our creativity and memory, he says.

Van Nimwegen also investigated what happened if, during a task his two groups were working on, their computers suddenly crashed.

"The group that used a computer throughout, felt lost instantly and immediately performed badly when completing the task. The second group, who has used only pen and pencil, simply carried on with its work."

Van Nimwegen says his study demonstrates people may benefit if they continue to study new information by using books and the spoken word.
Paper and pencil, not computer, boosts creativity

UPDATE: Christof van Nimwegen emailed to tell me that the eNews 2.0 article I linked to is way off base and boy is he sore about it:
I have indeed done research at Utrecht University, it did involve computer interfaces, and my doctoral thesis was indeed called "The paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter-effective". With great astonishment I am looking at this entry (over which I stumbled just by accident).

Never, ever in my life have I investigated the use of paper and pens/pencil, nor did I ever mention any of these. NOT ONCE, leave alone that I have done experiments with them! I do indeed mention the issue that under certain circumstances software can make us act "passive" and the text string "randomly clicking on icons and menu options". But this is completely out of context as it stands here, most of it is really nonsense. I am extremely curious where this comes from.....could you please tell me this? I sincerely hope that this "article" will be removed from this website, it can only do damage to myself and my former University.

For an example of a piece of text from this same week of someone who did read my thesis, see (this BBC article).

Of course, if you'd like to know what I did research there is my PhD. thesis, but for a quick idea (see this paper).


  1. I’m probably not alone in being a little doubtful (roughly) ten years ago, when some pundits said that the Web was the polar opposite of the ultimate pacifier, television, and that a new literate dawn was upon us, if only we’d turn off the boob tube.

  2. I seem to recall that people who don’t rely on writing at all have far, far better memory than people who do. Just sayin’

  3. I think most people who have done math heavy grad school work will agree that writing (and doing things by hand) is essential to learning and problem solving. For some reason its just impossible to learn math with the eyes alone (or eyes + typing/clicking).

    I always believed it had to do with muscle memory. Like playing a musical instrument or sport, your muscles learn patterns and they are very good at not forgetting these patterns (like how you never forget how to ride a bike). These muscle memories reinforce the mental memories and vice versa. I believe there have been studies showing that people remember things a lot better when they write them down.

    Although I know many people who would agree with me when I say that a white-board and dry erase markers are way way better than pen and paper.

  4. At first I was doubtful and even a little angry. I know for a fact my computer makes me smarter, not dumber. But then I understood what this study is really saying (it’s a mental exercise you pretty much always have to do nowadays, because these guys just can’t interpret their results right):

    Our software is stupid.

    I always liked to say, “if you write software that any idiot can use, you’ll make sure your users are idiots”. Turns out I was right-er than I thought.

    Software that focus on “power users” focuses on doing what you want, the way you do it best. Software that focus on “idiots” attempts to tell you what to do, with the final result of turning everybody into idiots in the long run.

  5. And to keep the testing parallel, just how well did the pen & paper group do when their pencils were broken?

  6. Irony that this posted shortly after a post about a man who only uses photoshop for all his illustrations.

  7. For those of us who write and design software, are there any lessons we can take from the pen-and-paper world that can make our software less restrictive, and more of a useful tool?

  8. Is this a fair test, one group relies on a computer and nothing else; it crashes, I understand the problem. The second group uses pen, paper and a computer, the computer crashes and they carry on? What is proved? keep a pen and a pad next to your PC?

    These sort of studies make me laugh, do we want to go back to room full of people pair a pittance adding numbers? I understand that computers limit geniuses, but they give the rest of us a change to grow in ways we could only dream of 20 years ago.

  9. @#7

    That jumped out at me, too. Did they also run a test where the pencil-and-paper people had their writing utencils taken away?

    Although in general, the trusting your mind over machine is valid. Somebody once said that Google makes smart people smarter, and dumb people dumber.

  10. Computers only limit geniuses if they’re restricted to “randomly clicking” on things.

    In other words, if the genius doesn’t have a damn clue on how to operate the computer, yes, he’s going to do badly.

    It takes years to master the operation of pencil and paper (or pen and paper, or marker and whiteboard), but folks tend to forget this. You did it when you were kids, after all.

    Spend the same amount of time mastering your other tools, and you’ll find they don’t pose a barrier to your cognition either.

    I’m speaking from an odd perspective – because of my handicaps, a pencil and paper is a huge barrier for me.

    Use of a pencil for me is slow, painful, ugly, and basically bad. This is after ten years of remedial therapy courtesy of my school board (I went through the education system back when they actually had separate classes for handicapped students, instead of burdening mainstream classes with us) so it’s not just that I never learned to write “properly”. Even now, the best I can manage with a lot of sweat and struggle is an erratic, mostly upper-case printing.

    A computer, on the other hand, is release. I type at 120 words a minute – not quite as fast as I think, but close enough that I don’t have to interrupt my thoughts to catch up too often. I’m intimately familiar with the keyboard shortcuts, speed menus, etc. in Microsoft Word because I’ve grown up with the software suite as it matured over the past two decades. MS Word may be a horrible piece of over-featured bloatware, but I can operate it damn fast.

    For me, there is no randomly clicking on things. I really CAN’T imagine how you’d be “randomly clicking” after about six months or a year of using the same suite. Use the damn help files, read the manual, get a “for dummies” book, take a course, whatever!

    If you’re randomly clicking, you’re working on a level roughly equal to a four year old clutching a pencil in his fist, scrawling on paper and thrilled to see the lines come out of the end of the pencil.

    Which is frankly not far from where I am with a pencil, so I feel for you. But unless you’re crippled, you should damn well be able to improve from that point.


  11. Some of us use software that’s as complex as the pen-and-pencil. It’s called “A command-line prompt”.

  12. van Nimwegen is a hack.

    Software is a tool, just like a pencil. Anyone can be trained to use a tool. Take that tool away and their efficiency is diminished. In Jerril’s case, the software is a more effective tool than a pen-and-paper.

    Tools that are easy to use enables very intelligent individuals as well as those that are less so. If Einstein used a pencil he would find it as easy to as I do.

  13. I understand the point they are trying to make: I am much less careful with spelling when I know Firefox will let me know when I’ve messed up.

    At the same time, I don’t think this in any way reflects my vocabulary, let alone my mental capacity.

    It’s just changed the rules. I no longer have to commit that information to memory to communicate.

    It’s the same with my cell phone address book largely rendering memorized contacts obsolete.

    Actually, wasn’t there a study (posted here?) a few years ago that ubiquitous lousy UIs has led to higher analytical test scores?

  14. It’s pretty much been said already in the comments, but:

    – This is a pretty terrible article. The scientist goes on to say that it’s NOT the pencil and paper themselves, but the fact that with such tools vs with a computer, a person (in this experiment) is forced to think more, rather than rely on tools. This, of course, can help in certain tasks that require intelligence. The title is misleading.
    – Back in the 1980s, and probably at random points before and after, people have complained about the downfall of some technology. There was an article (I wish I could cite it) that complained that the computer was the last possible salvation for man – here was a tool where everyone would have to learn to think — to program — in order to accomplish tasks. It would be a boon to thinking everywhere. The article went on to say that pre-packaged pre-written computer applications (the things everyone uses on computers) were the downfall, because they required LESS thinking.
    – This is more complicated than this, as well. You CAN use tools and be intelligent – probably not a single person can build a computer from top to bottom — all the silicon, all the code, everything involved.. but you can’t really argue that the people at most stages of the design of modern computers are pretty intelligent – and that people who deal in matters more or less abstract than others are more or less intelligent than others. In fact, intelligence is almost certainly hard to describe linearly.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t.. :)

  15. I have to question the results of this study. The Dutch psychologist van Nimwegen says that a lot of software turns us into “passive beings,” and that paper and pencil are better for the brain.

    That’s certainly in contrast to other recent studies. Professors at three universities — DePaul, Rutgers and Lehigh — have found that people lie and cheat more in e-mails than people who communicate with pen and paper. And they “flame” more, sending nasty personal attacks via e-mail. A whopping 92 per cent of e-mail senders lied, compared to 64 percent who wrote with pen and paper where asked to do the same assignment. Lying, cheating and the nasties are not “passive” activities.

    Also recently, church leaders in England said they were concerned about “Godbloggers,” who become vitriolic when they blog on religion, posting defamatory and hostile comments. So they came up with the Bloggers Ten Commandments.To read more, go to, where
    I’ve recently written posts on both subjects.

    Maybe van Nimwegen believes that to lie,cheat and be mean-spirited is better for the brain.

    And another thing — in the Dutch psycholgist’s study,when the researchers had computers suddenly crash for some of the subjects, Van Nimwegen said the computer-users felt lost instantly and performed badly. The second pen-and-pencil group carried on fine. Now wait a minute! What if the second group had their paper suddenly disappear, or the lead in their pencils, the ink in their pens suddenly go “poof?”

    Sharon McEachern

  16. This one appears so flawed it is hard to know where to start.

    The last bit will do: has the researcher noticed that we can get both books and “the spoken word” on computers now? That these are no longer separate things?

    I agree that the study was not adequately controlled, i.e. the paper and pencils didn’t disappear for the group using them. Hopefully the PhD examiners noticed this? If they didn’t, it will be a case of failure to recognize that pen and paper is a technology – as though “technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were growing up”.

    When I was growing up, my mother said what was wrong with me was that I read too many books. This seems to be a re-run of that – it reminds me of all those claims that the internet is bad for us, or computer games, whatever.

    I think of computers, and the internet, as amplifiers. If we use them cleverly, they make us more clever. If we use them passively, they could dumb us down. How we use these tools is largely up to us. Software design comes into it of course, and isn’t perfect.

    So even if this study had properly demonstrated what it claims, then before applying causal reasoning (“computers impair learning and creative problem solving”) it would be essential to investigate what might be improved in software design, and to assess the users’ approach(es) to the technology.

    Having said all that, I often work with paper and pens on my desk (as well as two monitors) because software doesn’t yet do everything I need.

    (disclaimer: I didn’t read the thesis itself, just the summaries.)

  17. After years of doing software and just recently picking up pencil and paper, I have noticed that it’s much harder to do something complicated when you don’t have something to check you.

    When programming, you can tinker away and the machine will guide you along if you’re in unfamiliar territory by providing immediate feedback.

    When doing math, it’s just you and a piece of paper. You best be knowing exactly what you’re doing, because if you don’t, you can just plow right along and do it completely wrong.

    You not only have to know how to do what you’re doing, but you have to know it well enough to check and verify that you’re doing it correctly.

    It was a very strange feeling at first, with that comfortable assurance and feedback channel suddenly disappearing. It requires greater mastery of the task at hand and is most definitely harder.

    And don’t get me started on the memory laziness brought about by the Internet. I had completely rewired my brain to remember associated keywords and search strategies rather than facts themselves. Undoing that one has been challenging.

  18. Writing with a pencil turns problem solving into a more physical act. Working things out on paper is more artistic, and will provide a different experience and possibly a different outcome than computer assisted problem solving.

    I would be lost without my computer, it enhances my ability to retrieve information ten-fold. But, it is important to always look at it as a tool.

  19. Funny timing.
    I just solved an elusive bug in a piece of software I’m currently developing, by taking the time to sit down, pick a piece of paper, and use a pencil to accurately describe the problem on the blank 2D surface in front of me.
    The solution just sprang into my face.

    Computers are all about automatizing stuff, hence great for assisting (sometimes even replacing) their human users in predictable, repetitive tasks.
    However, they tend to restrict the work-flow to the well-trodden paths. It’s in their nature. Fundamentally limited: can’t do anything they haven’t been programmed for.

    A good analogy could be a public transport network: a train or a bus is faster than going on foot for sure. But it can only take you to a select few destinations. What about all the other places? You’ll need to reach them by car, bike, foot, whatever.
    It doesn’t mean the network is useless: it can make much sense taking the train to the station nearest to your final destination, then walk there (or rent a car, or whatever). But limiting yourself to going only to places covered by the network would be a bit silly.

    So what about computers? I do find I tend to need pen and paper when approaching problems in a non-linear manner. The problem with word processors is their linearity (text is a one-dimensional space). Even the more structured word processors, that let you organize your ideas into trees (parts, sub-parts, etc.). Trees are about one-to-many relationships, but real-life problems usually involve many-to-many relationships. Arguably, such relational graphs can be represented through databases (very structured) or hypertext (free association). But I’ve yet to find a software interface that lets me create and visualize such relational graphs in an efficient manner. I always go back to my pen and paper.
    The physical interface here is probably at fault. A keyboard lets you type, and a mouse lets you navigate the screen’s 2D space, but you can’t do both at the same time, and switching from one to the other in not as seamless as the flow of a pen on a paper surface, connecting arrows to boxes and drawing letters forming words, all with the same ease. The only big limitation of physical paper is it’s not so easily editable (physically cutting and pasting is a bit messy).
    With that in mind, I guess a graphic tablet could be a good alternative? As long as the display’s resolution is equivalent to that of paper, which is not a given!

    In short: the problem may not be as much in the software (emulating pen+paper is not that difficult, MS Paint does just that! Or, for a more “artistic” rendering, Photoshop, etc.) than in the clumsy input/output hardware.

  20. When I first read this, I felt disheartened. I am taking online classes and I would hate to think I’m somehow disadvantaged because of my choice. Then I realized that I do still learn considering the majority of the schoolwork consists of participating in discussions. If I were in a class, it would still be a discussion, though my shyness in real life would hinder my contributions to the discussion.

    I can see what they’re getting at in the article, but that can be easily remedied. To those of you who remember slide rules, would you say that using it made you dumber? No? Well then, it’s the same concept. Computers are a tool that make things easier so you can be more productive.

    I’m on painkillers so if my argument didn’t make sense, blame them.

  21. To All,

    Hi, I’m Christof van Nimwegen. I have indeed done research at Utrecht University, it did involve computer interfaces, and my doctoral thesis was indeed called “The paradox of the guided user: assistance can be counter-effective”. With great astonishment I am looking at this entry and the comments (over which I stumbled just by accident).

    Never, ever in my life have I investigated the use of paper and pens/pencil, nor did I ever mention any of these. NOT ONCE, leave alone that I have done experiments with them! I do indeed mention the issue that under certain circumstances software can make us act “passive” and the text string “randomly clicking on icons and menu options”. But this is completely out of context as it stands here, most of it is really nonsense. I am extremely curious where this comes from, because this is an impressive piece of inferior journalism, who can help me out? I sincerely hope that this “article” will be removed from this website, it can only do damage.

    For an example of a piece of text from this same week of someone who DID read my thesis, see

    Of course, if you’d like to know what I did research there is my PhD. thesis, but for a quick idea:

    Best regards,
    Christof van Nimwegen

  22. I read about Christof van Nimwegen’s dissertation in the eNews article that David links to, in which CvN is quoted (or appear to be quoted) as speaking about pen/pencil v. computer use. I have no idea how the eNews article came to characterize CvN’s work as it does, but I’m embarrassed to have passed on what appears to be misinformation.

  23. Gosh! I’m glad I passed by this way again, the original post was intriguing, but Christof van Nimwegen’s correction, (never mind ‘update’), turns the whole thing on it’s head!

    I really think it would be worth re-posting this, or at least pointing back to it…

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