The Art of Penmanship: How handwriting fits in the spectrum of beauty and the brain

In a Google search for “the art of penmanship/handwriting,” over half of the titled results on the first page refer to the “dying” or “lost” art of handwriting. It is clear that the practice of beautifying the physical aspects of our words is becoming obsolete. What was once considered an art form is now considered a nuisance that is being replaced with technology and keyboards. When I asked my friends when the last time they can remember using cursive was, they all responded that the only time they use it willingly is on their signatures. It is a dying art. Yet every other primitive form of art seems to persist despite our technological evolution: paintings, sculptures, music, poetry.

However, in some cultures the beauty of writing does persist. Chinese calligraphy is an art form that continues its tradition. In Japanese, there exists both kana and kanji forms of writing, kana being a phonetic/syllabic script while kanji is a more ideographic script of greater visual complexity (Hellige & Adamson, 2007). In English, we have both cursive and script, and even our own form of calligraphy, which now has a more medieval feel to it as it is outdated and rarely used. Most of these scripts, or fonts, or styles would unanimously be considered more aesthetically appealing. It is even proven to be more neurologically stimulating, infer a more educated writer, and have distressing effects on those producing the more artful form of writing.

While Chinese calligraphy may still be considered an art, it has been claimed that English cursive writing occurred as “self-presentation but not self-expression.” Perhaps this is where cursive and calligraphy differ. However, historically, cursive was seen as a form of a gentleman’s integrity and a woman’s artistry (Supon, 2009). Culturally, these forms hold differing significance, but neurologically they may play the same role.

Overall, studies on English cursive writing have demonstrated the roles of the right hemisphere and the motor cortex. A study comparing both handwritten script stimuli and handwritten cursive stimuli demonstrated a greater contribution of the right hemisphere to the identification of cursive over script (Hellige & Adamson, 2007). While reading of words, letter strings and pseudo-words generally has more activation of the left hemisphere, the right is known to process more visually complex stimuli. Particularly, this study suggested that the extrastriate areas are involved in orthographic processing and more strongly in the right hemisphere on a letter-by-letter basis, which is seemingly a more common process in cursive writing. Similarly, in a study by Qiao et al (2010), greater activation of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex was displayed in cursive writing over print as well as an attentional parietofrontal network suggesting that more deciphering was required in reading these words.

The same right-over-left effect above has been seen in Japanese kanji versus kana writing and Chinese logographs versus a more modern pinyin syllabic script. Many studies refer to a greater activation of the motor cortex in cursive versus print recognition as well, suggesting that the extra energy needed to decipher these letters recruits the motor neurons that would aid in recreating this letter physically such as the left primary motor cortex and the supplementary motor area (Longcamp et al., 2011). Overall, the complexity of the more artistic forms of writing seem to have an effect on their processing.

In certain instances of brain damage and tumors, neuroscientists have found cases where the ability to recognize or create cursive writing was lost. In some cases, this process was even reversed with treatment. In one particular case of a 56-year-old right-handed woman with a tumor obstructing her left frontal lobe, she demonstrated allographic agraphia meaning she was not able to create cursive handwriting despite her previous impressive penmanship (Matiello et al., 2015). After resection of the tumor, the woman regained her capacity for cursive writing, restoring it to its original form (see photo below). This case suggests that the left frontal lobe plays a role in the processing of cursive writing, however it had no effect on print capabilities. The location of the tumor seems analogous to the location of the motor cortex suggesting that the inability to utilize a motor cortex inhibited her ability to create but not recognize cursive handwriting. Perhaps her ability to appreciate cursive was still intact.

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While all of this information points to the increased neural activation in cursive versus print and its greater complexity, not many studies have been geared toward cursive as an artistic form that can be appreciated for its superior aesthetics. Perhaps in the age of computers and technology, the appreciation for it, aesthetically, has declined. Maybe today we value the organized and consistent fonts of Times New Roman or Helvetica over handwritten cursive. However, the calligraphic art form in China continues to thrive. There, it is not only considered an art form but also used as a meditative practice and a training given to children, cadets, and those in therapy to help with emotional coping. In studies conducted with children given training in calligraphy, there was a significant difference in respiratory rate, heart rate, and electromyographic scores between the calligraphy group and a control meditation group. Additionally, between pre- and post- scores they found a decreased heart rate and an increased skin temperature for the calligraphy group (Kao et al., 2014). In other studies on personality in children after calligraphy training there was a main effect for managing your own emotions, knowing your emotions, and recognizing other people’s emotions (Bin et al., 2009) as well as a main effect on factors of excitement, dominance, and social boldness (Zhou et al., 2005). Finally, in a study on attention dysfunction in children with mental retardation, calligraphy training for rehabilitation led to significant improvement of attention stability, selectivity, and flexibility (Hu, 2000). Overall, this art form, utilized as a therapy, showed great effects for stress management, social aspects of personality, and attention. Not only is this form of art more greatly appreciated in this culture for its aesthetic beauty and meaning, it also demonstrates neurological benefits in the process of its creation.

It is likely that the process of creating art, in any form, has neurological benefits for artists. However, aesthetic forms of writing should not be overlooked in their capacity to produce these same effects. With the growing capabilities of technology, handwriting is becoming increasingly obsolete. However, perhaps if we were to refocus our curriculums on the importance of learning cursive or adopting skills in calligraphy, we could benefit by the neurological effects it produces as a form of art.

 

Bin, Z., Junsheng, L., Biao, S. (2009). The effect of calligraphy on children’s emotional intelligence development. Psychological Science (China), 32(5): 1211-1213.

Hellige, J.B., Adamson, M.M. (2007). Hemispheric differences in processing handwritten cursive. Brain and Language 102(3): 215-227. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bandl.2006.11.003

Hu, B. (2000). Behavioral intervention of calligraphy training for rehabilitation of attention dysfunction in children with mental retardation. Chinese Mental Health Journal, 14(6): 402-403.

Kao, H.R., Zhu, L., Chao, A.A., Chen, H.Y., Liu, I.Y., Zhang, M. (2014). Calligraphy and meditation for stress reduction: An experimental comparison. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 10: 47-52.

Longcamp, M., Hlushchuk, Y., Hari, R. (2011). What differs in visual recognition of handwritten vs. printed letters? An fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping 32(8): 1250-1259.

Matiello, M., Zimmerman, E., Caplan, D., Cohen, A. (2015). Reversible cursive agraphia. Neurology 85(3): 295-296. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000001754

Supon, V. (2009). Cursive writing: Are its last days approaching?. Journal of Instructional Psychology 36(4): 357-359.

Qiao, E., Vinckier, F., Szwed, M. Naccache, L., Velabrégue, R., Dehaene, S., Cohen, L. (2010). Unconsciously deciphering handwriting: subliminal invariance for handwritten words in the visual form area. Neuroimage 49(2): 1786-1799.

Zhou, B., Liu, J., Sang, B. (2005). The Effect of Calligraphy on the Development of Children’s Personality. Psychological Science (China), 28(5): 1266-1268.

 

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