Just doodle it!

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Health / History / Myths / Psychology

Do you doodle? Sketch? Or like many people, were you told at some point you were bad at drawing and gave it up completely? While virtually all kids draw, few adults do. But there’s good evidence we should all pull out our coloured pencils: drawing and doodling improve focus and memory and can help us learn.

Do you doodle? Your ‘mindless’ scribbles could actually be helping your brain stay focused, process thoughts and retain Information. Image credit: Loes van Voorthuijsen via Flickr

Are you a doodler? Your ‘mindless’ scribbles could actually be helping your brain stay focused, process thoughts and retain information. Image credit: Loes van Voorthuijsen via Flickr

Is drawing a thing of the past?

In days gone by, drawing was an important and valued skill in a variety of jobs. Before cameras, printers, scanners and Flickr, if you wanted a picture of something, you drew it. And humans have been drawing for a long time: the oldest drawings we have found so far are on cave walls on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi. They date back more than 35,000 years.

In our own lives, drawing tends to be a big part of childhood but then peters out. Kids start scribbling at about two and from around the age of four, begin to draw shapes. By the age of seven, kids are accurately portraying the people, animals and scenes around them: kids in detention centres often draw fences and barbed wire. But by the age of nine or ten, many kids become critical of their drawings and declare ‘I’m no good at drawing’. When they discover they don’t have the skills to draw their reality accurately, many give up. There have been recent calls for drawing to be brought back into school curricula. The argument is that drawing is a learned skill and more of us would continue to draw if we were taught how to do it better.

Doodling is a long way from being a bad habit

Of course some adults do continue to draw. But often we draw during meetings, on the margins of the agenda papers. We try to hide the fact we’re drawing because we’re worried about the impression it creates. The thing is, we tend to think someone who’s doodling is not doing what they are supposed to be doing: that is, listening. Even the word doodle carries negative connotations. In the 18th century, to doodle meant to swindle or ridicule someone. A century later, a doodle was a corrupt politician.

The irony is we now know just how wrong many assumptions about doodling are. Doodles aren’t meaningless marks and doodling isn’t a waste of time. I’ve written before about the calming benefits of the colouring-in craze. And many people find doodling to be enjoyable and relaxing. But doodling is also a powerful way to improve listening, thinking, focus and concentration. We rarely set out to doodle; doodling is just what happens when our brains are processing information. There are a number of well-known instances of U.S Presidents doodling while making decisions.

One of the first studies that aimed to test whether doodling improves concentration asked people to listen to a monotonous telephone message. Their job was to listen out for the names of people coming to a party amongst lots of irrelevant information. Half of the listeners were asked to doodle: shade printed shapes while listening to the call. The rest had to listen without anything else to do. When they were given a surprise memory test, the doodlers remembered a third more names than those who had concentrated only on the message. The researchers believe doodling prevented the listeners from daydreaming and getting distracted.

Drawing to remember

Forget surprise memory tests: if you know you need to remember something, try drawing it. In one study, 14-year olds were given 850 words to read about the biology of flu. It was a hard read, and the students knew they were going to be tested on what they had learned. Importantly, half the students were asked to make a drawing to represent each of the seven paragraphs. The remainder simply read the text. When they were later tested on how much of the science they had understood and remembered, the drawers did way better. In a second experiment the same was true even when the reading-only group was given the text with drawings already provided. It was the act of drawing their own pictures that resulted in those students remembering what they had read. It seems science is now demonstrating what artists have known for a long time.

“When you draw an object, the mind becomes deeply, intensely attentive. And it’s that act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.”                 Designer Milton Glaser

In another series of experiments, researchers tested whether it was easier to memorise a series of words by writing or drawing. University students were given a list of easily-drawn words like ‘apple’. For each word, they students had 40 seconds to either draw the object, or write the word repeatedly. Later the students were given a minute to remember as many of the words as they could. The drawing students remembered twice as many words as the writing ones. Again, looking at pictures drawn by someone else didn’t have the same effect. Even when the students were only given four seconds for their drawings, these students had a huge advantage in later memory: the quality of the drawing didn’t matter.

So it doesn’t matter whether we think we’re any good at it or not. The time has come for us all to get doodling.

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  1. I’ve always used pictures to help me remember. I recall drawing key aspects of chemistry on old business cards to help me prepare for my year 12 exam.
    PS. Loved the TED talks.

    • Do you still draw to remember stuff Marti, or does drawing play a different role for you now? Thanks, as always, for reading.

      • I draw at work, but in a different style. It’s more about mind maps, arrows and circles… Infographic in nature… No little green alien men or Franks in my drawings

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