As Hilary Clinton sat listening to speeches on global security and the Middle East during a Security Council meeting at the U.N., she was seen scribbling furiously on her speech in front of her.
Making last minute changes? Adding questions that needed answers? No, she was doodling. This was splashed across newspapers across the globe, shown as evidence of her lack of attention in such an important and complex meeting.
But just because she was doodling doesn’t mean she wasn’t listening, and it certainly doesn’t mean she wasn’t thinking. Quite the opposite, in fact! A few groups around the world have started looking at the benefits of doodling and the research is astounding. As it turns out, those simple scribbles can do everything from sharpening your creativity to boosting your productivity, focus and mood.
In this article, we'll delve into everything you need to know about the science of doodling, including the myriad of benefits of your brain.
So, what's going on in our brains when we doodle? Well, usually when we do it, it's out of boredom, frustration or to release stress. Experts describe doodling as like a safety valve, that allows us to release pressure in a safe and non-threatening way.
However, there's far more going on than meets the eye. Firstly, doodling is thought to give us a powerful mirror into our sub-conscious. This can allow us to tap into other concepts and ideas we might not have otherwise considered. Doodling is also thought to give certain processes in the brain a break, while firing up other, more helpful ones. Below, we delve into how doodling affects the cognitive processes of the brain.
You can think of your brain as treading a fine line between arousal and inactivity. Ideally, there is plenty to keep your brain occupied and an attention circuit is activated in your brain. When we are paying attention, cortical and subcortical areas of the brain make sure that our eyes are focused in a certain direction and that the visual information coming in is routed to the right places. But what about when we are not paying attention?
When your brain has nothing to do, current research suggests that it goes into a default mode, enabling certain circuits that let it sit and wait for the next task without using up too much energy. This default state includes cortical areas such as the medial temporal lobe, which is involved in memory, and the posterior cingulate cortex, a highly connected part of the brain that routes information from all over.
The default mode network is what is active when you are daydreaming, or when you are replaying memories in your head. But sometimes instead of daydreaming, what you need is for your brain to disengage but to still be paying attention to outside stimuli. That is where doodling might come in handy. It prevents your brain from slipping into that state and essentially keeps it on stand-by.
One of the largest studies into doodling was by Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth in the UK. She asked people to listen to a boring telephone message and then they had to recall information from the message afterwards. Half the participants were also asked to shade in some squares and circles during the message, but were told not to bother with neatness or keeping within the lines. The researchers found that the doodlers were far better at recalling the information afterwards
So, why is it that the doodlers were better at recollection than the non-doodlers? Well, it could be that the doodling kept those people from falling into that default state and starting to daydream. It kept them at just the right level of arousal were they were able to attend to the information while drawing away. The participants were not told about the memory test beforehand, just that they had to note down some names (these notes were then taken away before they were tested), so the non-doodlers had no reason not to drift away into their daydreams.
Doodling is more than just a way to stop yourself from daydreaming and keeping your brain from falling asleep. The act of drawing is creative in itself and can help you come up with ideas to solve whatever problems you might be stuck on.
For instance, specific ideas can come via doodling. While sitting in a dull conference in 1963, Polish mathematician Stanisław Ulam started drawing out a square spiral of numbers on his paper.He then absent-mindedly circled all of prime numbers and noticed a pattern–the primes were arranged along the diagonals of the spiral. Ulam had inadvertently discovered a hidden mathematical pattern for prime numbers, just through doodling.
Doodling can also help generate and refine ideas that you have already had. In this respect, it seems authors are common doodlers. Alexander Pushkin would doodle the faces and people from his poems along the edges of his manuscripts, presumably allowing them to come to life in his imagination.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky did the same, with images from his writing intermingling with the words on the pages of his manuscripts. J. K. Rowling would doodle the characters and settings from her novels so that she could refer to them when writing and describe them with more clarity. So, you could say that some of the world's best ideas have arisen from doodling!
When you are frustrated, anxious, or depressed, it can be difficult to convey those feelings in words. But an image might come to mind that describes your feelings.
A University of California San Diego team were testing out a digital sketch platform called UbiSketch, which they had designed. Over the four week test period, they found that the users often sketched out images that conveyed their feelings and then sent them to their friends and family. One guy sketched his frazzled brain, exhausted from his job and newborn baby. Another tester sent a picture of her term paper looming over her as a deadline approached. These doodles were a literal example of a picture speaks a thousand words.
If you find yourself wound up and unable to find the right words, consider sketching out how you feel instead. Even if it is a heavy-pencilled scribble, people will at least know how you feel.
If you've been feeling a little tense or tightly wound lately, it might be time to put pen to paper. Research shows that much like other visually creative activities like coloring in or doing collages, doodling can help you unwind. It's thought to calm the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the 'flight or fight' response—which is linked to stress and anxiety.
In the book Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation, psychologist Christine Selby recommends a specific doodling technique for stress relief. She recommends drawing a continuous line across the page that curves and crosses itself many times. Then, you can then use a different color to fill in the blank spaces created by the lines.
The repetitive motion of moving the pen across the page making the same shape over and over is thought to lull you into a calm state. It also eliminates the fear of making a 'mistake' when doodling, as you're simply drawing a continuous line and coloring in when the mood strikes.
Doodling when you're meant to be studying may sound like it would be counterproductive. But studies show that students who draw during lectures and assignments retain more information and can make sense of complex ideas. Not only that, but it's thought to increase the enjoyment of learning, which help make you more engaged with the course materials. Plus, it can reduce distraction and promote innovative thinking. All of these benefits work together to make you an A+ student, whether that's in school, college, at work or just in life!
Ever heard the expression 'miss the forest for the tree?' Well, doodling can help us take in the whole forest. Often, when we're trying to solve a problem or complete a task, we get 'tunnel vision' and are only laser-focused on what's right in front of us. Doodling allows us to take a step backwards and connect overarching ideas and concepts—whether that's from past memories, or our sub-conscious. This is conducive to the type of big picture thinking that leads to innovative solutions.
As Gulia Forsythe, Special Projects Facilitator for the Center of Pedagogical Innovation at Brock University puts it, doodling “a form of external thought that allows you to visualise the connections you are making while thinking. In the conscious mind, doodling can assist concentration and focus but even in the unconscious mind, while doodling and day dreaming connections are made."
Here's a great example. Gabriela Goldschmidt, an architecture professor, studied different design approaches from students on her courses. One was having difficulty coming up with ideas for a kindergarten he was supposed to be designing. The student often doodled his signature when he was bored. As he did this he noticed patterns turning up between the letters that corresponded to his idea of different play areas in the kindergarten. He grew his sketch from the doodle and came up with the design that worked.
Much like our dreams, many people believe that our doodles are like a mirror into our sub-conscious. That is, the beliefs, memories and thoughts we store in our minds that we're not actively aware of on a day-t0-day basis. Many researchers believe our absentminded scribbles give us insight into what's going on under the surface, which can help us gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. What we doodle is thought to help us shed the layers of our egos, and shine a light on our true nature. For example, boxes are thought to be symbolic of structure and efficiency, while flowers indicate a gentle and fragile nature.
What we draw is thought to provide clues into our current state of mind. This is why psychologist Dr. Robert Burns uses doodles to diagnose the emotional problems of his patients. He believes that in the same way that EEG ( electroencephalogram) leads transmit brain activity to a piece of paper, your hand also does the same For example, while criss-crosses are thought to be a sign of anxiety, stars reveal a more optimistic mindset. So, if you're struggling to figure out how you feel about something, taking a peek at some of your recent scribbles might help give you some clarity.
Ever been on the phone with someone and realised that you haven't been listening for the last 10 minutes because you were too busy thinking about what you're having for dinner? Next time you find yourself zoning out, start drawing!
According to Jesse Prinz, a philosophy professor at City University of New York Graduate Center, doodling keeps participants in a state of “pure listening” that is close to meditation. “Doodling helps hit that sweet spot between listening too much and listening too little,” Prinz says. “It keeps you in a state where your mind can’t wander, and your mind can’t also reflect or think more deeply about what you’re hearing... it’s to such a great extent that if I do not doodle, I find myself having difficulty concentrating.” Essentially, listening makes you a more engaged and focused listener, so you can actually take in what the other person is saying. It's a good one to try out in your next work Zoom call—as long as your camera is off!
Not only can doodling make you smarter and more creative, research shows it can actually make you happier, too! However, what you draw matters here. While the 'venting' approach we mentioned earlier may help you process your emotions, it doesn't always necessarily lead to a fast mood boost. In a 2008 study where participants were asked to either draw something that was making them unhappy (ie. to vent) or something that made them happy, those who zoned in on the positive saw a higher short-term elevation in mood. So, next time you're trying to quickly lift your spirits, try doodling something that makes you smile—whether it's your favorite pet, or a plane taking off for your next vacation.
While doodling gets a bit of a bad rap, it's clear from the benefits above that it can do incredible things for your work efficiency.
However, is doodling always a good thing? It depends on how you're doing it, and for during which tasks. For example, a report on the learning styles of medical students (who are required to absorb large amounts of complex information) found that doodling was helpful, so long as they limited the amount of time they spent doing it. Doodling for 30 minutes was found to be an optimal amount of time to give their brains a reprieve and help fill in gaps in their thinking. However, any more than that would start to negatively impact their productivity.
One situation where doodling may be more of a hindrance than a help is when it comes to visual tasks. A 2012 study from the University of British Columbia asked participants to watch a set of images and then recall them from a list afterwards. One group just had to concentrate on the images, while a second group was asked to doodle at the same time. The doodlers had a much harder time recalling which images were shown than the non-doodlers.
When you're listening to something monotonous, doodling might be enough to keep your brain awake and help you remember information, but multitasking using the same modality, vision, is too much for your brain to handle, and it has to prioritise one over the other. The takeaway? There's a time and place for doodling, so do sure to do it wisely.
Some people avoid doodling because they think they need to be good at drawing. However, this is certainly not the case! There is still merit to be found in doodling, even if you're not the next Leonardo DaVinci. That said, if you're new to drawing, you may find that you spend more time policing your art skills rather than just mindlessly creating.
If you're struggling to zone out, Sunni Brown, author of the book The Doodle Revolution, suggests starting from the basics—lines, dots, circles, and triangles—and moving on from there. Almost every shape can be made from just them, and you can draw those repetitively to keep your brain awake. Happy doodling!