Dare to doodle!

[podcast]https://edwardwillett.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/doodling.mp3[/podcast]

Hi! My name is Ed, and I am a doodler.

I have doodled my way through countless classes, mounds of monotonous meetings, scads of sonorous sermons.

My teachers and others have looked at me askance over the years. But no more! I, and all who doodle with me, have at last been vindicated by psychologist Jackie Andrade of England’s University of Plymouth.

What Does Doodling Do?” asks her latest study, the results of which were just published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The answer? Doodling, far from distracting people from the monotony du jour, actually helps focus their minds: doodlers remember what they just heard better than non-doodlers.

For her study, Andrade asked 40 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 55, to listen to a monotonous mock telephone message. They were told up front that it would be boring, and to further enhance the boredom, the participants were all grabbed just as they completed another experiment and were looking forward to going home.

The mock message began, “Hi! Are you doing anything on Saturday? I’m having a birthday party and was hoping you could come.” Read in a fairly monotone voice, it included the names of eight people attending three party, plus those of three people and one cat who could not. The participants were asked to write down the names of those who would attend the party.

However, the message was also chock full of boring extraneous material, from boring talk about the weather to boring news of a kitchen reno, boring news of someone’s boringly sick cat, a boring recipe for punch, and finally boring details of a boring vacation in boring Edinburgh.

Half of the participants were asked to use a pencil to shade alternating rows of small squares and circles on a piece of paper while they listened. “It doesn’t matter how neatly or how quickly you do this,” they were told. “It is just something to help relieve the boredom.” (They weren’t told simply to “doodle” because the researchers didn’t want them worrying about what might constitute a proper doodle.)

The doodlers had enough space along the paper’s edge to write down the names of the party-goers. The non-doodlers were simply given a sheet of lined paper to do the same thing.

At the conclusion of the exercise, the participants were surprised with a memory test, asked to recall not only the names of the people attending the party, but also the names of all the places mentioned.

The results? The doodlers did better–not just at remembering the place names that they hadn’t specifically been asked to write down, but at taking note of the party-goers’ names they had been asked to record.

Overall, the doodlers recalled a mean of 7.5 pieces of information, 29 percent higher than the non-doodlers, whose mean was 5.8 pieces of information.

In a way, this is surprising (though perhaps not to doodlers). Generally speaking, we do better at a task when we concentrate solely on it: attempting to multi-task leads to something called “dual-task interference” which degrades performance.

Andrade suggests that doodling helps to “stabilize arousal at an optimal level.” Low arousal levels lead to snoozing. But when you’re bored, sometimes your autonomic nervous system actually becomes more aroused. This may express itself in fidgeting–or your brain, insufficiently interested in whatever is going on around it, may kick into overdrive and start making stuff up.

We call that daydreaming, and Andrade’s specific hypothesis is that doodling may be beneficial to memory tasks because it reduces daydreaming in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to performance than doodling itself.

Unlike daydreaming, doodling doesn’t occupy a lot of the brain’s resources. That leaves more resources free to remember what the heck is being said, no matter how boring it may be.

So doodlers of the world, unite! While you fill your paper with kittens and flowers and exploding spaceships (OK, maybe that’s just me) you may actually be concentrating better than those of your colleagues who appear to be engrossed in the speaker’s words, but are actually taking a mental trip to Disney World.

From this day forward, do what I do: dare to doodle!

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2009/03/dare-to-doodle-2/

3 comments

    • Nancy on March 5, 2009 at 7:29 pm
    • Reply

    I always doodle, because I know it helps my concentration. Sometimes I doodle on the paper, and sometimes I make the paper into origami, or paper cuttings, which is messier, but more fun, and serves the same purpose.

    • Anonymous on March 4, 2009 at 3:31 pm
    • Reply

    I was so happy to read your article. I doodle all the time, much to the frustration of others around me. Others simply don’t understand the peace it brings me. Thank you for your article and it feels good to know there are others like me.

    • Janet on March 2, 2009 at 2:10 pm
    • Reply

    I used to file my nails in class to help me stay concentrated. It worked. So this study makes a lot of sense to me.

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