Drawing Conclusions: Can Doodling Help Us Concentrate?

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If you look up “doodling” on Wikipedia, you’ll find the following description: “an unfocused drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.” It’s no secret that the act of doodling has, by most accounts, a negative connotation. Sketching butterflies during a classroom lecture or making paisley patterns throughout a Monday-morning meeting, when I should have been concentrating on something else, has always made me feel guilty, like I’m breaking the rules. Yet to this day, if I’m in a room full of people, I sometimes cross my leg and angle my notebook strategically to make myself as inconspicuous as possible while I carry on fervently with my chain-linked daisies—all the while hearing the faint nag of self-condemnation that I’m not paying enough attention.

But maybe I am. As it turns out, the shame surrounding doodling that I’ve been harboring since I was a kid could be entirely uncalled for. Doodling while working can actually be beneficial, according to a study conducted by psychology professor Jackie Andrade, of the University of Plymouth in England, and published by Wiley InterScience in February 2009.

Listen and Learn
Andrade’s study, which was the first to test the theory that doodling may improve concentration, was simple. Forty people, aged eighteen to fifty-five, were given the task of listening to a “monotonous mock telephone message” listing the names of people who were going to attend a party. The recording was played at a comfortable volume and speed (averaging 227 words per minute), and the following information was included: the names of eight people attending the party, the names of three other people and one cat who could not attend, and some other random details. Does this sound boring to you? It should, because boredom is one of the main factors that make people want to start doodling.

As a result, dullness was of utmost importance in Andrade’s test—the duller the message could be, the better. To deter anyone from trying to search for hidden meaning in the message, the researchers even revealed to the participants beforehand that the information they heard would be quite tedious. In addition, they intentionally approached the volunteers about taking part in the study immediately after the volunteers had finished with another, unrelated study; the researchers’ hope was that since the group would already be in the mindset of going home, asking them to stay a bit longer would intensify their feelings of boredom while they completed the experiment.

Half the members of the group were asked to draw while they listened to the message—but rather than having the participants doodle freely, the researchers requested that they fill in preprinted circles and squares, the goal being to encourage the most uncontrolled and naturalistic reaction to the test. This method would theoretically alleviate the pressure to perform artistically that the participants were likely to be feeling. The study stated, “Participants were not asked to doodle freely, in case they felt self-conscious about their drawings or suspected that the content of their doodles was the real focus of the study.” The researchers needed the focal point to be the act of doodling, not the doodles themselves.

The Outcome
The participants in Andrade’s study who completed the shape shading while listening to the recording were able to retain more information than those who only listened to the message. When given a surprise memory test, the doodlers recalled 29 percent more than the non-doodlers did. To the researchers, these results suggested that the act of doodling acts as a sort of “arousal stimulator,” keeping us aware and alert, and that there is a real possibility that “doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to performance that doodling itself.” Moreover, the study implied that “doodling may have facilitated this deeper processing by reducing daydreaming, without competing for the verbal processing resources needed for listening to the telephone message.”

Doodling Through the Doldrums describes boredom as simply “having nothing to do.” And as anyone can attest, doodling becomes an almost instinctive way to kill the time while we’re waiting on the telephone or sitting on the train and just searching for a way to make the minutes move faster—it’s a simple activity to engage in while our minds drift off. Jennifer Schuessler, editor of the New York Times Book Review, published an essay in the New York Times in January 2010 pointing out that “researchers have discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing—for example, lying in an f.M.R.I. scanner, waiting to be given some simple mental task as part of a psychology experiment—the brain is in fact firing away.” She goes on to say, “When this so-called default mode network is activated, the brain uses only about 5 percent less energy than it does when engaged in basic tasks. But that discrepancy may explain why time seems to pass more slowly at such moments. It may also explain the agitated restlessness that compels the bored to seek relief in doodling or daydreaming.” So, in our minds, at least, time really may be passing that much more slowly during our downtime, in turn making us that much antsier.

Fools’ Paradise
Each year, Merriam-Webster editors add new words to the company’s dictionaries. The process requires them to read a wide variety of published material and to be able to make decisions about which terms deserve a spot. But what about words that are already in the dictionary and just need their definitions modified a bit? Originally, the word “doodle” (as in the famous American Revolution–era song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) referred to a fool or a simpleton. But since a little bit of scribbling now seems to go a long way toward helping people concentrate while they’re at a meeting or listening to a lecture, “doodle” is one entry Webster’s may need to tweak.


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