Research on reading, writing and human memory isn’t new. In fact, Cuneiform, the first Sumerian writing system, emerged in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. And since that time, scholars have attempted to grasp how documented communication connects and affects human beings. Neuroscientists in particular have attempted to understand the ways that our brain encodes and recalls the things that we write and read, versus speak, hear, taste, touch or smell. Or – more accurately – how all the senses work in tandem to remember and recall things that are written.
But a new, unique study from RMIT University in Australia has concluded what many have believed to be true for a long time: We really do have to work for our knowledge. “When a piece of information is too easily and cleanly read, it can fail to engage our brains in the kind of deeper cognitive processing necessary for effective retention and recall,” the report says. Or stated in laymen’s terms: the more you must focus on a task, the better you are at it.
Thus, the introduction of Sans Forgetica, a type font that was specifically designed to boost memory. Sans Forgetica is an attempt to address what RMIT researchers referred to as a, “somewhat ironic flaw of design. By disrupting the flow of individual letterforms, readers are subtly prompted to increase their focus on the text being communicated.”
A body of evidence as evolved in recent years about the decline of longhand writing, especially during meetings and classes. And it has come to light that typing notes on a computer amplifies mindless transcription with verbatim recording of what we hear. This means that the brain does not process the information well because the encoding process is shallower. A study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education found that when children who had not yet learned to read or write were asked to trace, draw or type a letter, the recall for the letter when viewed later in an MRI machine was different. Recognition was greatest for the letters than had been independently drawn because it activated three brain regions – more than either those who traced the letter or typed it.
In three distinct studies on young adults, college students who took manual notes in class (thus physically writing their thoughts with pen and paper and reframing them) performed significantly better when tested on conceptually-based questions.
What makes this even more interesting, is that laptop note takers, on average, take much lengthier and more robust notes than those who write in longform on a notepad. But the Journal of Educational Psychology published results of a study that show in less than 24 hours the advantage of more text disappears. Indicating that it really is about quality and not quantity when it comes to better performance.
Nevertheless, as our use of computers and printed type have increased, most new research has been in relation to the physical characteristics of text. Font type, spacing and proportionality of lettering have been growing areas of focus. And all are shown to affect recall of information. Most recently, Princeton University (of which the RMIT research was based) attempted to understand if harder to read fonts really do help us remember things. And it appears that they do.
Whether it be words that are italicized, bolded, or missing parts of letters or words, “disfluency” of font appears to help your brain remember. The authors of Fortune favors the bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes found that deeper processing occurs when more cognitive energy is needed to complete a task, and that includes reading. In both studies conducted by the authors it was concluded that material in hard-to-read fonts were better remembered than easier fonts, and that small changes to learning materials could yield differences in classrooms.
This is where Sans Forgetica comes into play. As the new font was released to the public, so too was a RMIT report – ironically, not written in Sans Forgetica – demonstrating the work that went into crafting the new font. Importantly, both science and practicality were used as measurements for success. Further, the work included a threshold of difficulty called ‘desired difficulty’ that optimizes learning and recall. Or, exactly how difficult comprehension should be, without being so difficult it defeats the purpose of learning.
As research continues, we will learn more about how the brain learns and processes words, whether written or read. But it is certain that both how humans encode words and recall them can be influenced by the collective use of our senses. So no matter what strategy you employ to read or write, make sure that you’re putting forth enough effort to do the task well.