What do you use when you want to get a fresh perspective on a problem? I sure hope the keyboard, either physical or virtual, isn’t your first choice. And I say that as somebody who loves pounding away at a loud mechanical keyboard. A keyboard is a modern writer’s best friend, but ever since the ancient Egyptians decided to document the fun of pyramid building on papyrus, humans have used sharp sticks not only to poke each other to death but to write words and draw images. Over time, as paper and literacy became more affordable, the pen evolved into a wonderful thinking tool for all ages.

Mind you, when I say pen, I don’t mean a premium Montblanc pen – although that seems to be the pen of choice of bearded guys in airline magazines. A pen can be a humble graphite pencil, a sophisticated mechanical pencil, or a high-tech stylus for tablets. I suppose stick and sand still work well enough in emergencies (at least until it starts raining).

Reaching for a pen, this mighty thinking tool, makes all sort of cool things happen in your brain.

Pens = space = thinking

What pens give us is the freedom to explore space. Not necessarily outer space, but any kind of spatial content such as diagrams and symbols. Research by Sharon Oviatt and others shows that a pen invites us to doodle more and by doing that, we achieve better results, especially when faced with complicated math or other problems. Brain scans also seem to confirm previous observations that thinking appears to be based in our brain’s navigational system, so we might quite literally need space to think.

It’s no wonder that whiteboards are a staple even at high tech startups. Among engineers, it is known that when faced with a complex problem, be it engineering or human in nature, you grab a marker, find the nearest whiteboard or glass surface, and start drawing many circles, arrows, and the occasional stick figure. If you’re well-funded, you might even be able to afford them fancy digital whiteboards. Either way, just make sure to avoid the permanent markers that somehow manage to pretend they are of the erasable kind.

At the expense of sounding like a grumpy old fig, I must say I was recently surprised when meeting modern computer science students who gave me skeptical looks of the youth when I suggested they should use pencil and paper to approach a thinking challenge. They seemed to think that sitting at their desk and staring into space will do the trick. While sitting still is certainly a valuable skill worth practicing, actively exploring new ideas is better-done while, well, active! Doing research online is an excellent first step, of course, but when it comes to thinking – and learning –, a pen will open up more space for you in a way that emojis simply can’t on their own. Although you could certainly include emojis in your digital drawing; I happen to be an old-fashioned believer in poorly drawn stick figures.

Keyboards are excellent for writing many words, but our monkey brain works better when not limited to Unicode characters – even though emojis give us some non-linguistic expressiveness even a monkey could get on board with. Ideas you cannot name yet need the space pen interfaces create through scribbles and doodles.

What about other “learning styles”?

If you feel tempted to mention learning styles at this point and argue: “but I’m an auditory learner and learn better by listening to podcasts!” you are lucky that the look I’ve just given you doesn’t translate well over text. The most common myth of learning styles claims that we learn best when the content matches our format preferences for pictures, videos, words, or doing things with our hands. Alas, as lovely as that sounds, it’s just a myth. Don’t take my word for it, the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning has a page dedicated to it. And the Atlantic published an excellent article on how this myth came to be in the midst of the 90ies self-esteem craze that would have us believe we’re all super special and unique. Just because you like podcasts, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way for you to learn everything this way.

With learning styles out of the way, I do hope I’ve managed to convince you to give pens and pencils a chance in the next big thinking or learning challenge you face. You can always come back to your keyboard at a later stage when you need to find the right words to explain your ideas. But when you need a thinking tool, a pen should be your first choice, regardless of whether it’s powered by batteries or ink.

I do tend to use a combination of both a mechanical pencil (Uni Kuro Toga 0.5 is my drug of choice) and stylus Pencil, paying particular attention not to mix paper and tablet with the wrong kind of pencil. As a pro tip, I keep my tablet in Do Not Disturb mode while taking notes or exploring the space of a new problem. This way, the tablet behaves more like paper, but still has the added bonus of having an infinite supply of colors that never fade, and the magic of copy paste. These days, you can definitely take advantage of the best thinking tool we have without appearing completely outdated.

Dig deeper: recommendations

Here’s more fascinating research on how pens make us learn and think better if you’re into that kind of thing:

  • If you only have 5 minutes: Computer interfaces and their impact on learning by Sharon Oviatt (note: while sponsored by Microsoft to promote their tablets, this is an excellent summary of relevant research).

  • If you have more minutes: The Design of Future Educational Interfaces by Sharon Oviatt. An in-depth collection of her research and a fascinating read, especially for educators and UI designers; I’m hoping for an updated edition with even more research on voice and touch interfaces. #researchgeek

Unbrick your fig challenge

Grab a pen!
You seem to have such nimble fingers for a fig! You should use that as an advantage. Find a pen an pencil that sits nicely between your fingers, and see if you can give your thoughts some space to evolve in unexpected directions.

Next time you reach for a pen or pencil instead of a keyboard when faced with a complex problem, you will receive:

  • 💎 10 creativity