Stream-of-consciousness drawings can help you to focus and retain information.
By Chris Dunmire | Posted 9/29/20 | Updated 5/16/22
When's the last time you found yourself doodling during a class lecture, meeting, or on the phone?
If you think doodling is an indication that your mind is wandering and you're no longer paying attention, you may be surprised at what research reveals.
Doodles are unique stream-of-consciousness drawings that don't depend on artistic ability or even accuracy. Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger observes, "Doodles are spontaneous marks that can take many forms, from abstract patterns or designs to images of objects, landscapes, people or faces."
Doodling appears to put the the brain in free-style mode to lighten the load and give the brain a break from deep concentration. "Some people doodle by retracing words or letters, but doodling doesn't include note-taking," Shellenbarger says.
Some behaviors like doodling — formerly frowned upon — are getting a second look. In the article, "Imperfect Harmony," science journalist Melinda Wenner discusses the upsides to some commonly perceived "bad" behaviors like anger, procrastination, gossip, and … well, doodling.
Wenner compares the "old thinking" and "new wisdom" of each behavior based on new research showing how these qualities may benefit us after all, citing Bryan Gibson, PhD, a professor of social psychology at Central Michigan University who says, "In certain situations, what is typically a detrimental trait can turn out to be a good one." And it turns out doodling has some good traits.
Here's the old thinking and new wisdom Wenner shares about doodling:
Old Thinking: "Scribbling circles on a notepad while your company's chief inspiration officer drones on about synergy means you have trouble focusing."
New Wisdom: "Doodling can boost your mind's ability to notice and remember mundane information by nearly 30 percent, according to research from the University of Plymouth. The theory is that the act of drawing makes use of visuospacial processes in the brain that might otherwise be used for daydreaming, thereby preventing your mind from wandering."
The idea that doodling aids in concentration is supported by experiments. In a published case study from the University of Plymouth, UK, "What Does Doodling Do?", professor Jackie Andrade conducted an experiment with 40 participants to answer the question, "Does doodling improve or hinder attention to the primary task?" Here's what she found:
"40 participants monitored a monotonous mock telephone message for the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a 'doodling' condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test. Unlike many dual task situations, doodling while working can be beneficial. Future research could test whether doodling aids cognitive performance by reducing daydreaming."
Andrade concludes that "doodling may facilitate deeper processing by reducing daydreaming."
What do artists think about doodling? Artist Alvalyn Lundgren observes, "Doodling is to the [artist] what stream-of-consciousness is to the writer." In his blog post "The Line Between Doodling and Drawing" he recollects his own graduation from doodling to drawing and notes the differences he's noticed between each:
Doodling is calming. To engage in mark-making quiets us down and we can actually slow down. We can daydream and exercise our imaginations accompanied by the unforced rhythms of what I call visual wandering. ... Drawing also quiets us, but we’re not daydreaming. We’re observing, studying, analyzing and moving, our brains and body aligned in a singular purpose. We become quiet because we’re focused on one this and separating ourselves from distractions.
Explore more about doodling and have some creative fun while you're at it. All you need is a drawing tool (pen, pencil, marker, Sharpie) and some paper. Or, if you prefer to doodle digitally on your device, you can any of a number of graphics programs or tools (Wacom, Windows Paint, Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator), an online whiteboard, or one of many drawing and sketching apps.
Read on for Jacob Lett's guide to doodling.
By Jacob Lett | Posted 2/1/11 | Updated 9/8/20
I have been doodling all my life. In notebooks, sketchbooks, post-its, and pretty much anything else I can get my hands on. I remember when I was in first grade, I would sell drawings of cars and super heroes for 25 cents. This interest continued all the way throughout school as I took every art class as I could.
What I love about doodling is how loose and imperfect it is. As a graphic designer bound by rules of grids, spacing, and precision a doodle is a fun escape. I can just grab a marker and draw and not worry about how realistic or how perfect my drawing is. I just draw what comes to mind.
The Most Important Rule of Any Doodler is don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't worry about rules or how something looks in real life. Work fast. See what happens. You might think you're not an artist and can't even draw a straight line. Don't let this stop you from experiencing the joy of doodling.
If you're a first time doodler, you will soon realize how much you can do already. If you feel like scribbling... scribble, if you feel like drawing a huge circle next to a small square... do it. No rules.
There are some things you can do to improve the quality and speed of your doodles. Practice drawing basic shapes such as: circles, squares, triangles, cubes, and rectangles. Next think of all of the different types of lines you can draw: straight, wavy, curly, jagged, dotted, dashed, and sketchy.
Once you've explored shapes and lines. Now explore all of the ways you can color in the shapes: shaded, filled in, cross-hatch, stippled, and lines.
Another doodle booster is drawing a still life. Look around your house for objects you can place on a table and draw. An example would be a book, pencil, coffee mug, and keys on a desk. Grab your sketchbook and draw them the best you can.
This will train your eye to see the outlines of objects. You will soon memorize the basic shapes of common objects and how they interact with each other in an environment.
Lastly, every creative endeavor requires inspiration. We need to see, read, or hear things that inspire us to doodle. On my blog, I have a doodle idea generator to help spur these types of ideas.
One great source of inspiration is to look at the work of others. See what they draw and how they draw it. Search YouTube for doodle art videos, research abstract artists such as Picasso and Matisse, look at art done by kids, and search the Internet for other doodle blogs and websites.
So as you can see, doodling is not just for artists or designers. It is for anyone willing to take risks and to explore their creative side. I hope doodling brings you as much joy as it brings me. Happy doodling!
©2011 Jacob Lett. All rights reserved.
Jacob Lett has been doodling all of his life: in notebooks, sketchbooks, post-its, and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on.
Andrade, J. (2009). What Does Doodling do? Retrieved June 25, 2020 from http://pignottia.faculty.mjc.edu/math134/homework/doodlingCaseStudy.pdf, and https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/acp.1561
Lungren, A. (n.d.). The Line Between Doodling and Drawing. Retrieved August 10, 2020 from https://alvalyn.com/line-doodling-drawing/.
Shellenbarger, S. (2014). The Power of the Doodle: Improve Your Focus and Memory. Retrieved August 3, 2020 from https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-power-of-the-doodle-improve-your-focus-and-memory-1406675744
Wenner, M. (2010). Imperfect Harmony. O, The Oprah Magazine. April, 2010.