Paul Gilster: Best tools to help you remember? Don’t forget about pen and paper

What do you do to help yourself remember things? We all have our particular habits, but I’m sometimes surprised at how digital technology can confuse the issue. Given the sheer amount of storage available on even a handheld device, why would memory of the human kind be a problem? Surely, I once thought, we’d just begin storing all our important information in our devices and rely on them as a supplemental “brain” in some ways better than our own.

But not so fast. I’ve been toting around handheld gadgets since the first PalmPilot and I’ve learned through trial and error that human memory is plastic and malleable, even with the help of silicon. That’s why I carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket, in which I write down important things as they come up. I still use my smartphone to store the same information, but the strange part of it is that only by writing it down physically – I’m talking about using a pen and paper – do I seem to retain at least certain kinds of information.

If this seems odd, consider a recent study that investigated students using laptops for note-taking. You would think that with all a computer’s opportunities for distraction, a laptop would be less than ideal for concentration in a classroom setting. But this work, in the journal Psychological Science, tells us that even with laptops restricted to nothing but note-taking, the physical act of keyboarding results in what the authors call “ hallower processing.”

Seals the memory

The gist of the matter is that students who took notes on a laptop did worse with conceptual questions than students who took notes only by longhand. What seems to be happening is that the keyboard encourages users to transcribe the lecture they are hearing. A verbatim transcript would seem on the surface to be better than scattered notes, but the reality is that those handwritten notes aren’t really scattered. They tend to be more carefully chosen notes in which the students look for important points in a lecture and reframe them in their own words.

But does this effect apply to digital organizers? My digital tools for memory are Evernote and Google Keep. Evernote has many uses, but I find it’s best for long documents or sections of documents that I want to preserve for later study. Evernote’s search engine makes it easy to call this material back up when I need it. As for Google Keep, it’s handy as a to-do manager, where I can stick short notes to remind myself of appointments or jot down material for future stories.

Looking back over my digital notes, I realized that in many cases I had entered the same data on separate notes over months and even years. I couldn’t remember that I already had the information. Whereas with the physical notebook, the act of writing somehow seals the memory – I seldom enter anything twice. Perhaps what’s happening is that knowing something is searchable makes us less likely to make the mental effort to commit it to longer-term memory.

Memory structures

I have nothing but anecdotal evidence, but when I mention these matters to others, I often hear that they also remember things better when they write them down by hand. In my case, this only works for specific kinds of memory, such things as names, quick story notes and other observations. I still can’t do without Google Keep for reminders (go to the dentist!), while Evernote keeps my extensive list of quotations from my reading.

Let me suggest, though, that while we live in a digital age, there’s a continuing need for paper and even, dare I suggest it, a place for penmanship, the teaching of which is being all but abandoned.

We have much to learn about human memory, but we do ourselves no favors by assuming we can offload all our processing to our smartphones. We’re apparently creatures whose biological nature creates memory structures according to its own demands. A mix of digital tech and pen and paper, working together, sparks an intellectual resilience that neither can achieve by itself.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at