When technology makes us dumb

21 Nov
November 21, 2014

Technology is all around us.  Technology drives our lives.  Technology makes our lives easier.  But can technology also make us dumb?  That’s a strange concept – but read on…

The Power of the Pen

According to research by Mueller and Oppenheimer at UCLA.

students who took lecture notes longhand had a deeper understanding of the material.  That’s a pretty damning consequence for all the electronic-mac-enabled-kindle-note takers.

Mueller and Oppenheimer suggested that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning.

What Mueller and Oppenheimer suggested is that students who write in longhand listen, digest, and summarise so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  They found that taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing, students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.

Put simply, using technology makes us dumb!

Enter Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictitious character Sherlock Holmes, was also a great scientific thinker.  He deduced – as was his way – that even an apparently random stack of papers on a desk could mean order in the mind of the owner.  Because the human mind works by association.

the ability to locate key documents in a large stack of old papers on a desk may appear random but the owner can swiftly locate key items by recalling size, shape and location in relation to all the other papers.  Analogue information provides a ‘shape’ which the human mind can readily process – using posh words, we’d describe this as cognitive encoding .  By contrast, digital information is ‘flat’ and therefore carries fewer of the ‘hooks’ that aid memory.

The pen is mightier than the screen

And so research is clearly indicating that the act of picking up a pen or pencil connects our brain with the world around us. Flat screen give us flat information and by implication removes much of the richness that aids memory and retention and learning.  As New Scientist reported, “Screens aren’t going away any time soon, and they raise issues that go far beyond literacy. But our approach to their use should not be in thrall to yesterday’s values. Only when we know precisely what screens do to us will we know precisely what we should do with them.”


Research clearly suggests that technology can impede learning – it can make us dumb.  As learning and development professionals, we should perhaps consider swapping screens for pencils – or at least encourage our learners to ‘ditch the digital’ every once in a while.


As always, I’d appreciate comments from all of you with experience in this area.  I’ve scratched the surface with this post but will add more real examples as time allows.  I’d love to hear what you think.

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6 replies
  1. Annabel Graham says:

    Such an interesting post. Reflecting, I do both, but if note taking for my own learning rather than a record of a meeting/talk I write longhand. Firstly- I pay more attention and record my observations and interpretation this way- so learn on a deeper level, secondly I interact more. When I type I focus on the transcript and don’t have time to get involved.

    As a facilitator it drives me nuts when people type in a small group as they rarely contribute and it acts as a barrier. Real food for thought.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Thanks for your comments Annabel.

      I liked your comments about when you facilitate. I’m a visiting lecturer at a university and whenever I run a session I always ask for laptops to be put away as I want people to think and interact rather than typing random ‘flat’ statements.

      Perhaps as humans we’ve spent far more of our time writing than typing and I do feel that this deep history is something that will keep long handed writing at the forefront of learning and retention.

  2. Craig Taylor says:

    Writing on a tablet with a stylus?

  3. Julian Staddon says:

    Hi Jonathan
    Good post and I vaguely remember the case of longhand notes being more effective for retention.http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

    and boy am I good at locating paper on my desk!

    I have some personal experience of this dumbing – when I wrote things on paper I could spell; now I do most tasks on a PC my initial spelling is much worse (and indeed I have unlearned words!) – I spot that it’s wrong (most times) but when I wrote on paper (at school, college, lectures etc) I knew instantly. Now Word and website spelling notification means I don’t have to know how to spell initially – I can write an approximation and it shows me an error – of course I recall what the word should be.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Thanks for your comments Julian – and for sharing your experiences.

      I too am more of a ‘paper person – and can tell much more of a ‘story’ when reading my hand-written notes, indeed in my many notebooks it’s easy to spot my ‘favourites’ as those pages are the most dogeared!


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