This Is Your Brain on a Laptop

We love our electronic devices. They make our lives better, right? Connected life is richer, more fulfilling, more efficient. Ok, you know that is not necessarily true, but having a laptop in a meeting or a lecture surely increases your ability to record and remember what occurred and therefore are helpful, right?


A growing body of evidence shows that overall, we learn less when we use computers or tablets in classes, lectures or meetings. That’s right, less.

In a series of experiments at Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, students were randomly assigned either laptops or pen and paper for note-taking at a lecture. Those who used laptops had substantially worse understanding of the lecture, as measured by a standardized test, than those who did not.

The researchers determined that note takers using laptops simply transcribed the lecture without any cognitive processing. Those taking notes by hand had to process and condense the spoken material to keep up. It is this processing and condensing that enhances learning.

“What about the positive effects?” you say. Like having better notes to go over later, or the ability to capture more information. Well, a team of professors at the United States Military Academy studied laptop use in classes taught in small sections. These cadets have very strong incentives to perform well and avoid distractions, since class rank has a major impact on their job status after graduation. By the end of the semester, students in the classrooms with laptops or tablets had performed substantially worse than those in the sections where electronics were banned.

The research is unequivocal. Laptops (or tablets) distract from learning.

“Well, we’re all adults,” you say, “each person has to make their own choice.” Not so fast. It turns out that laptop use harms the learning of those around the user also. Research has shown that those seated near laptop users also had reduced learning and comprehension. The economic term for such a spillover is a “negative externality,” which occurs when one person’s consumption harms the well-being of others. The classic negative externality is pollution: A factory burning coal or a car using gasoline can harm the air and environment for those around it.

As most of you know, I have carried around a blank book and a fountain pen for much of my life. I don’t call it a journal. I just call it my book. I put all kinds of things in it. Notes from Sunday school and church sermons, shopping lists, to-dos, ticket stubs, sketches, quotes, notes from meetings—just about anything. A friend from my high school days got me started. He once said that it may turn out his grocery lists are more important that his “deep thoughts” so he put them all down in his book. So, I do too.

More importantly, what I have learned over the years is I retain most of what I write down. I rarely go back and reread my book. I don’t have to. If I do the work of writing it down, which apparently includes a mental process that aids learning, I tend to remember it. I would love to think that is unique to me, but apparently, everyone can use this simple tool.

The best evidence available now suggests the you should avoid laptops during presentations and meetings and pick up a pen.

If you need a pen, come see me.