Handwriting: The Brain, the Hand, the Eye, the Ear

Friday, February 24, 2012

Evelyne Ender

Earlier this semester, the CMBC hosted a lunch seminar helmed by Dr. Evelyne Ender, Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. In a wide-ranging talk, Ender discussed her ongoing work on graphology, the interdisciplinary study of handwriting as a window on human expression and creativity.

From her perspective in the humanities, Ender explores the connection between what art offers and what research in cognitive science has revealed about the mechanisms underlying artistic expression. She is particularly interested in the tools humans use to express their humanity, focusing specifically on handwriting. In a world in which writing increasingly occurs on the computer screen rather than by the tried-and-true method of applying pen to paper, we may easily forget the degree to which handwriting fulfills, as Ender put it, “a deeply ingrained human need for communication.” Moreover, recent work in neuroscience suggests that the act of handwriting may itself give rise to substantial cognitive benefits. Ender pointed to a recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory, who argued, on the basis of neural evidence, that instruction in handwriting at a young age facilitates the development of literacy skills, presumably by linking specific hand movements to the visual recognition of letters and words. This tight coupling between human perception and performance suggests that the study of handwriting may uncover clues about the workings of the human mind. A collection of readings selected by Ender for the seminar (on haptics, rhythm and timing, the structure of symbols, and the history of stenography) offered further evidence of the growing scientific interest in handwriting.

Ender’s discussion of her current project, entitled The Graphological Impulse, began with a review of the rather peculiar history of graphology. Nineteenth-century France saw the development of a method of analysis of basic personality and character traits based on the examination of one’s handwriting. This method manifested perhaps most strikingly in hiring practices, with employers demanding handwritten letters of application to be analyzed by a graphologist. In some cases, job candidates whose handwriting suggested a personality profile unsuitable for the desired profession were eliminated from consideration. Because no correlation between handwriting and high-level character traits has ever been empirically established, graphology is now regarded as a pseudoscience. Nevertheless, Ender maintained, an analysis of handwriting may provide insight into what it means to be human. Ender suggested that humans possess a fundamental drive to physically inscribe, scribble, doodle, sketch, outline – just a few of the manual movements we employ to (quite literally) make our mark on the world. Ender characterized this drive as an impulse, strong enough to transcend physical limitations. She recounted the famous case of Nannetti, a patient held in a primitive psychiatric hospital in Italy. Prevented from using writing tools, Nannetti felt such a need to leave a written trace that he carved stories into the walls of the hospital with none other than the metal buckle of his hospital uniform.

Ender’s project is organized as an in-depth case study of the intersection between the composer Frederic Chopin and the novelist George Sand, who came together both creatively and personally for a brief period during the nineteenth century. For Ender, this exchange between two groundbreaking artists highlights the interaction between the creative brain and the external environment, with art reproducing a specific phenomenological experience of being in the world. According to Ender, the exchange between the brain, the body, and the world is no more evident than in the handwritten page. To illustrate this idea, Ender presented slides from a handwritten draft of one of Sand’s classic novels. The remarkable grace and fluidity of the script were evident in the slides, which also demonstrated the complexity of semantic and oral “coding” exemplified by Sand’s prose. Sand is said to have written for long stretches at night in a free-flowing, “disinhibited” manner. Despite such apparent spontaneity, Ender noted that writing page after page of script with minimal corrections, ultimately producing a nearly print-ready piece after some thirty hours of manual labor, is an extraordinary skill. To put pen to paper in such an expert fashion requires an underlying mastery of the mappings between sound and visual form, grammatical knowledge, proficiency with spelling, manual dexterity, fine motor control, among many other sophisticated abilities. As I enjoy the relative luxury of typing this commentary on my computer – making countless edits and deletions, consulting my word processor’s built-in thesaurus, cutting and pasting at will, creating a backup copy with the click of a button – I am even more impressed at Sand’s achievement.

Of particular interest for Ender is the degree to which the quality of an artist’s handwriting is correlated with the fluidity of the creative experience. When Sand swapped pens while writing, for example, did this refreshing of instruments also serve to refresh her ideas? And when she was writing prose that was especially lyrical, did she engage in correspondingly rhythmic auditory imagery? Ender proposed that such questions might be fruitfully addressed through interdisciplinary exchanges between the humanities and the sciences. Cognitive science research exploring the nature of cross-modal sensory representations, such as those between vision and audition, might be particularly informative. Some individuals, known as synesthetes, experience consistent mappings between visual and auditory stimuli (e.g., certain letters and words invariably evoke certain colors), and such mappings have been regarded as exceptional cases of the type of everyday cross-modal associations that we all experience (e.g., the association between speech sounds and the mouth shapes that produce them). It might be interesting to examine whether such perceptually rich representations are more likely to be elicited by writing figurative or metaphorical language than by merely comprehending it. Such a possibility suggests how one important aspect of creativity, namely the ability to draw links between seemingly disparate sensory phenomena, might be operationalized. The richness of one’s mental imagery during the artistic process might, for example, predict the ultimate creative impact of one’s product.

Ender’s presentation left me wondering whether handwriting, rather than providing a unique window on the creative mind, might be better characterized as but one of many skilled, highly automatized behaviors through which we, perhaps unwittingly, express our creativity. For example, although the primary purpose of walking is to get us where we need to go, no two people walk the same way. The idiosyncratic gaits we adopt may, like the distinctive output of our pens, reveal much about our individuality. One might also argue that spoken – as opposed to written – language, in requiring the complex, rapid-fire coordination of multiple parts of the vocal tract to convey intention and meaning, is an even more impressive creative feat (and arguably more fundamental to human expression, given that not all languages have writing systems). With technological advances comes the temptation to bemoan the loss of older, “purer” forms of communication. But although handwriting may be in danger of becoming a lost art, we will surely find other, no less striking ways of manifesting the creative impulse within us.

About Kevin Holmes

Kevin Holmes earned B.A. and M.A. degrees from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Psychology (Cognition & Development) from Emory University. He subsequently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley. Since 2014, he has served as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Colorado College. Kevin's research investigates the structure of human thought, exploring how the mental categories we rely on to think, perceive, and act upon the world are related to the languages we speak, as well as how people think and reason about concepts of space, time, and number.
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