The Power of the Doodle

Doodling helps people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information

Carolyn Ellis of Brilliance Mastery capturing the Lightning Talk Sessions at Imagine Your Workplace Conference.

Long dismissed as a waste of time, doodling is gaining respect.

Recent research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows that doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information. A blank page can also serve as an extended playing field for the brain, allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.

Doodles are spontaneous marks that can take many forms, from abstract patterns or designs to images of objects, landscapes, people or faces. Some people doodle by retracing words or letters, but doodling is not note-taking.

“It’s a thinking tool,” says Sunni Brown, author of the book, The Doodle Revolution. It can affect how we process information and solve problems. Doodling provides an alternate route to learning for some people, she says.

To understand where the compulsion to doodle comes from, the first thing you need to do is look more closely at what happens to the brain when it becomes bored. According to Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth, many people may assume that the brain is inactive when they are bored, but the reverse is actually true.

“If you look at people’s brain function when they’re bored, we find that they are using a lot of energy — their brains are very active,” says Andrade.

The reason is that the brain is designed to constantly process information. But when the brain finds an environment barren of stimulating information, it’s a problem because the brain ends up manufacturing its own material, like daydreams or fantasies of Oscar acceptance speeches and million-dollar lottery wins. These daydreams take up an enormous amount of energy.

The function of doodling, according to Andrade, who recently published a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, is to provide just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from taking the more radical step of totally opting out of the situation and running off into a fantasy world.

Andrade tested her theory by playing a lengthy and boring tape of a telephone message to a collection of people, only half of whom had been given a doodling task. After the tape ended she quizzed them on what they had retained and found that the doodlers remembered much more than the non-doodlers.

“They remembered about 29% more information from the tape than the people who were just listening to the tape,” says Andrade.

The appearance of a doodle can stimulate ideas for improvement, according to a 2014 study from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a researcher on learning techniques of design. A doodle can spark a “dialog between the mind and the hand holding a pencil and the eyes that perceive the marks on paper,” the study says.

The study discussed an architecture student who became stalled in his efforts to design a new kindergarten classroom and started a habitual doodle he found pleasurable — writing his signature over and over.

The student soon began to see between the letters of the doodle the outline of a layout for the kindergarten’s three activity spaces. He drew progressively larger versions that eventually became an architectural sketch, the study says.

Doodling doesn’t detract from concentration; it can help by diminishing the need to resort to daydreams.

It’s a very good strategy for the next time you find yourself stuck in a boring meeting.

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