The Implications of Handwriting

Beyond its usage in our everyday lives, handwriting has several implications for forensics, psychology, and neuroscience.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Rin Fukuoka

Humans are distinct in the structure of our hands. Even the earliest humanoid, the Australopithecine Lucy, is recognized for her specialized hand structures, which include thumbs and an increased range of motion. This unique structure allows for human handwriting, with the visual fingerprint of every writer created through the size, shape, and slant of letters and punctuation. Though handwriting is quickly losing popularity to typing, its digital counterpart, handwriting still holds cultural and scientific significance. From learning and writing at a young age to analyzing it in a forensic context, handwriting represents special neurological, physical, and possibly psychological aspects of humanity.

Educators and parents alike use handwriting practice as a means of developing children's fine motor skills, the coordination of the smaller hand muscles along with more detailed movements with the eyes. On a neurological level, handwriting is a unique activity because of the degree of participation it requires from the brain. Beyond commanding our hands to put a pen to paper in a coordinated movement, we are also forced to think about the content of what we write. The most involved regions in handwriting are the left gyrus and the left anterior cingulate cortex, located in the center of our brain’s left hemisphere. The activity present in these areas of the brain differs depending on whether we are imagining writing or performing the act of writing, indicating further nuances in the brain structure and its relation to handwriting.

Writing and letters also have a unique relationship with functional specialization, which is the way specific brain structures process faces, colors, and movement. Reading and writing seem to come naturally for many, but unlike colors and motion, the functional specialization of writing is not evolutionarily hardwired into our perception. Instead, children’s brain structures specialize to recognize reading and writing around the time they learn to do so, indicating their exposure has a clear effect on brain structures. The link between specialization and children's exposure to reading and writing means that it may present itself distinctly in those exposed differently.

Because of the heavy neurological participation in handwriting, many believe that handwriting affects our personalities. The process of analyzing handwriting and its correlation to ourselves is known as graphology. Proponents of graphology believe that certain aspects of our handwriting correspond to certain aspects of our personality. For example, neater, smaller scripts may mean that the writer is overly critical and has low self-esteem, while individuals with larger and more eclectic styles are thought to be more carefree. Though such an idea seems both credible and entertaining, graphology has been disproven as a science and is considered a pseudoscience.

Despite this, handwriting is not an entirely inaccurate indicator of neurological conditions and identities. Handwriting can often differ between neurotypical and neurodivergent children. Neurodivergence is a term used to refer to people with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children with ASD and ADHD may suffer from dysgraphia, a condition where those affected have difficulty or are unable to write coherently. This disorder often interferes in neurodivergent children’s education as educators unfairly punish them for apparent “sloppiness” that is out of their control. Because it correlates with neurodivergence, students with ASD or ADHD are often tested for dysgraphia by copying sample texts as specialists assess their fine motor skills.

Handwriting analysis is also present in forensics, where analysts can piece together data about writing styles and apply it to crime scenes. Questioned document examiners (QDEs) analyze a given reference of handwriting and compare it to other documents to identify forgery. They do so by observing details such as letterforms, line forms, and formatting. Though subjects may try to avoid this kind of observation through falsification of their handwriting, QDEs can still pick up on this by analyzing how many times a writing utensil was picked up from a stream of writing. Shaky lines and varying thicknesses are also indicators of forgery. This analysis is also useful in determining whether they were abusing substances that may have led to altered handwriting. Once QDEs have ascertained the identity behind specific handwriting, these documents can be used as physical evidence in court.

The importance of handwriting in education, psychology, and forensics has been called into question in recent years as typing and technology are beginning to replace manual writing. As a result, some believe that handwriting may evolve or even die out. When referring to the switch from handwriting to typing, Audrey van der Meer, a neuropsychology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) said, "Given the [technological] development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence of increased digital activity." On the other hand, students whose education is hampered by forced handwriting, such as neurodivergent students, may benefit from the gradual switch to technology.

From pseudoscientific graphology to the more practical applications in education and forensics, the science behind handwriting still has a lot to offer. The observed effects of handwriting in children and their functional specialization introduce new questions about the brain’s structure and how different parts of our brains are fine-tuned to specific behaviors. The practical applications, such as those used by QDEs in forensics, may change as we move towards typing-heavy environments. Though this seems to have negative implications for solving tricky crime scenes, the increased focus on typing may have its benefits for those hindered by handwriting-heavy environments. Despite this shift, it is undeniable that we will continue to be using our hands, pens, and paper for years to come. The popularity and usage of handwriting may change with the progression of the technological age, but for now, it still holds a great degree of significance both in and out of science.