Doodling Helps You Pay Attention
A lot of people hate doodlers, those who idly scribble during meetings (or classes or trials or whatever). Most people also hate that other closely related species: the fidgeter, who spins pens or reorders papers or plays with his phone during meetings. (I stand guilty as charged. On occasion, I have also been known to whisper.) We doodlers, fidgeters and whisperers always get the same jokey, passive-aggressive line from the authority figure at the front of the room: “I’m sorry, are we bothering you?” How droll. But the underlying message is clear: Pay attention.
But I’ve never stopped fidgeting, and I’ve always thought I walked out of meetings remembering all the relevant parts. Now I have proof. In a delightful new study, which will be published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, psychologist Jackie Andrade of the University of Plymouth in southern England showed that doodlers actually remember more than nondoodlers when asked to retain tediously delivered information, like, say, during a boring meeting or a lecture. (See the cartoons of the week.)
In her small but rigorous study, Andrade separated 40 participants into two groups of 20. All 40 had just finished an unrelated psychological experiment, and many were thinking of going home (or to the pub). They were asked, instead, whether they wouldn’t mind spending an additional five minutes helping with research. The participants were led into a quiet room and asked to listen to a 2½-min. tape that they were told would be “rather dull.”
That’s a shocking bit of understatement. The tape — which Guantánamo officials should consider as a method of nonlethal torture — was a rambling (and fake) voice-mail message that purported to invite the listener to a 21st-birthday party. In it, the party’s host talks about someone’s sick cat; she mentions her redecorated kitchen, the weather, someone’s new house in Colchester and a vacation in Edinburgh that involved museums and rain. In all, she mentions eight place names and eight people who are definitely coming to the party. (See pictures of office cubicles around the world.)
Before the tape began, half the study participants were asked to shade in some little squares and circles on a piece of paper while they listened. They were told not to worry about being neat or quick about it. (Andrade did not instruct people explicitly to “doodle,” which might have prompted self-consciousness about what constituted an official doodle.) The other 20 didn’t doodle. All the participants were asked to write the names of those coming to the party while the tape played, which meant the doodlers switched between their doodles and their lists.
Afterward, the papers were removed and the 40 volunteers were asked to recall, orally, the place names and the names of the people coming to the party. The doodlers creamed the nondoodlers: those who doodled during the tape recalled 7.5 pieces of information (out of 16 total) on average, 29% more than the average of 5.8 recalled by the control group. (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
Why does doodling aid memory? Andrade offers several theories, but the most persuasive is that when you doodle, you don’t daydream. Daydreaming may seem absentminded and pointless, but it actually demands a lot of the brain’s processing power. You start daydreaming about a vacation, which leads you to think about potential destinations, how you would pay for the trip, whether you could get the flight upgraded, how you might score a bigger hotel room. These cognitions require what psychologists call “executive functioning” — for example, planning for the future and comparing costs and benefits.
Doodling, in contrast, requires very few executive resources but just enough cognitive effort to keep you from daydreaming, which — if unchecked — will jump-start activity in cortical networks that will keep you from remembering what’s going on. Doodling forces your brain to expend just enough energy to stop it from daydreaming but not so much that you don’t pay attention.
So the next time you’re doodling during a meeting — or twirling a pencil or checking the underside of the table for gum — and you hear that familiar admonition (“Are we bothering you?”), you can tell the boss with confidence that you’ve been paying attention to every word.
For questions about this article, tweet @KrisSanchez.