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. Though doodling is not exactly a hotbed of neuroscientific and psychological research, a few groups around the world have started looking at how doodling can help improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory retention, listening, creativity, and emotional expression. So next time you find yourself doodling away, don’t stop and think you should be doing something useful: you are.
01. It stops your brain from slipping into its default state
You can think of your brain as treading a fine line between arousal and inactivity. Ideally, there is plenty to keep you 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.
If it is just a matter of keeping your brain engaged, then take a leaf out of Hilary Clinton’s book and doodle whatever comes to your mind, spirals, abstract shapes, anything will do to keep your mind from falling into that default state and no longer paying attention to the outside world. But if you want more directed doodling, then consider following the advice of a Science article from the University of Nottingham in the UK and La Trobe and Deakin Universities here in Australia in 2011. They looked at how doodling and drawing can help in science education, but their ideas are equally adaptable to any area of creativity.
They think that drawing can be used to communicate, to reason, to engage, and to learn. You can therefore use your doodles to clarify your ideas for your colleagues or clients, to help guide them and engage them through your reasoning for a design or idea, as well as to help yourself learn new techniques and to discover new ideas.
It is obviously good for the brain to have this default state, a sort of go-to to save energy when it doesn’t have to be doing anything else, but as we all know, sometimes we can be daydreaming away when we should really be paying attention.
02. It can improve your memory
Anyone who cherishes creativity knows that daydreaming gets a bad rep. It is when your brain is in this default mode that a lot of connections between abstract and disparate thoughts, emotions, and memories can be made. 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.
As we said, little work has been done on whether doodling ultimately helps concentration and arousal. One of the main studies in favour of doodling was performed 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. These shape-shaders, akin to 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.
It seems that doodling helps people concentrate and listen when the subjects can get rather boring. Keeping the doodling in the family, when the Clinton Presidential Library was hacked, the hacker posted memos online that were covered in Bill Clinton’s doodles.
These doodles included a dragon breathing down on Slobodan Milošević, a limousine, an American flag, and some, er, male anatomy. He had sketched them while listening to briefings, and you can see from the memos and the drawings how his mind was processing the information.
So don’t feel bad about doodling away if, like Hillary and Bill, you are listening to something dull.. You might actually be helping yourself to concentrate rather than allowing your brain to reset itself to its default state and filling your head with dreams. Feel free to draw whatever comes to your mind. You might find that these doodles help you to remember what was said later, as Jesse Prinz, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York, does. He draws the people giving the lecture. Usually he will draw something abstract in the image as well, and when he comes back to the drawing later, the image helps him to recollect what the person was saying in the lecture. You might not have his drawing props, but keeping yourself from daydreaming is likely to help your recall ability later.
03. It can make you more creative
Doodling is more than just a way to stop yourself from daydreaming and keeping your brain from falling asleep though. 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.
We might not generally consider these doodles though. They seem more like drawings, even if they are done absent-mindedly when the authors were supposed to be working on other tasks. When most of us think of doodles, we think of spirals, circles and abstract shapes that we draw. Some people avoid doodling because they think it requires drawing skills. They think that there is some merit in doodling proper sketches, but that doodling abstractedly is pointless.
If you are good at drawing then great, but just because you cannot draw the faces of your lecturers accurately does not mean you should avoid doodling.
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.
In fact, to get you started Sunni Brown suggests three different doodling techniques in her book. The first is Atomisation. Here you take a single idea and break it down into its component parts, so you can consider the separate parts of the whole. For instance, drawing the different parts of an elephant. Secondly, there is Game-Storming, where you take two disparate ideas and meld them together. Draw an otter and then queen and then see what you can make from the two of them. Thirdly, you have a Process Map. This is a great way to doodle through your thoughts and any problems that you might be having. By drawing them and putting all the ideas on paper, you might be able to draw different associations and conclusions than from simple words in your head.
Doodling can also help with the negative aspects of creativity. Whenever 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.
04. But sometimes it can get in the way
Andrade studied the effects of doodling on an auditory task, but what happens when you are supposed to be paying attention to something visually and you are doodling? If the task you are supposed to be concentrating on is visual then doodling might not be the best thing to be doing. 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.
In this case, you can see why that might be. Both doodling and watching images require the same sense – vision. When you are listening to sometime 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.
But if you are a visual artist then don’t despair. For those that are visually creative, doodling is much more than just a way to stop your mind wandering. 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.
So, basically, doodle. Except when you’re supposed to be watching something else. Otherwise there are almost no downsides to a bit of doodling, apart from a lecturer/co-worker/spouse complaining that you are not listening (if so, just send them to this article).
Whenever you think you might be drifting away, or whenever you have a problem. Don’t worry if you cannot draw, and don’t worry about what will actually come out onto the paper – unless you are a president, in which case your doodles of genitalia might be kept for prosperity.