How Do We Write Right?

How wonderful it has been, as a palaeographer by previous inclination and experience, to begin to research handwriting in the context of neurology. It has been fascinating to scrape the surface of the biological processes involved in putting pen to paper. In order to understand the handwriting distortions that we might expect in medieval scribes with neurodegenerative conditions, I’ve started to investigate the distortions that neurologists are witnessing in modern people. In the process of doing this, I’ve been learning a lot about how we write. Though I have previously studied the minutiae of pen strokes and have investigated the intricacies of spelling variations, I have never before looked into what our brains do in order to transform thought into ink.

Image

Gerrit Dou, Old Scholar sharpening a Quill Pen (detail) 1630-35. The Leiden Collection, New York, with thanks to @ainoa_castro for the Tweet

     It strikes me, as I look at the beautiful painting by Gerrit Dou, above, of a seventeenth century writer, that there are so many factors involved in being able to write right. For the pre-modern writer, especially, there were not only writing processes, but also the skills needed to prepare tools and the writing space. The Old Scholar, here, is sharpening his quill. He wears spectacles, which immediately highlights his need for good vision. He looks intently through his downcast eyelids, demonstrating the demand for attentional focus. He uses his motor skills to clasp a sharp knife and to pinch the end of his quill pen with his fingers. His book rests on his desk. In it, he has used his excellent hand-to-eye co-ordination to rule the lines upon which he will write. Before he paused, he was using his ability to remember and retrieve letter forms and spellings to put words onto page. After he has sharpened the nib, he will readjust the focus of his vision and resume writing.

     The processes of handwriting can be divided between linguistic and motor functions. The ‘linguistic’ relates to spelling, whilst the ‘motor’ applies to the moment in which sequences of letters are transformed into movement of the pen. My project, for now, focuses on the latter of these two factors. Once the spelling of a word has been accessed through the linguistic functions, the brain generates the relevant graphemes (for example, letters, numerical digits, Chinese characters, or punctuation), in the graphemic buffer. The graphemic buffer, as I understand it, is a temporary holding area, in which the abstractions that we use to represent meaning are held whilst they are transformed into either movements of the hand or sounds.

     There are two different types of information that need to be retrieved in the process of pushing ideas through the graphemic buffer. The first is the physical letter shapes themselves – the allographs. The second is the movements that are required to execute these strokes – the motor functions. The brain has to program and execute skilled movement, a process known as ‘praxis’. A poorly-formed letter or word is the result of a problem in this process. The individual is unable to fluently produce the well-formed pen strokes needed to represent the letter shape that he or she has recalled.

     This is a massively simplified description of what is a complex research area. However, doing this initial research has been useful to me, newly approaching the study of handwriting under the auspices of a Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorder. Before I embarked upon this project, I had not even known that ‘dementia’ is not a specific disease, but a symptom of a number of different neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease, frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or corticobasal degeneration. Understanding the processes that occur in writing is crucial for my project, as each of these conditions has a different effect on writing. Some have a minimal impact upon the motor functions of writing, but a great effect on spelling. Some present writing deficiency as a presenting (or, early) symptom, and others some present it at a later stage. The first stages of my research involve gathering as much information as I can about these conditions and how they impact upon the lives of those who have them.

The research goes on …

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