Doodling keeps the brain ‘on task’

June 13, 2018’

Bill Gates does it. Presidents Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan did it, too. Also Ralph Waldo Emerson—and probably Leonardo da Vinci. And yet, when you do it, you probably hide the evidence. It’s doodling—that much debased art that many of us resort to during business meetings or long telephone calls.

But, according to one study, the doodlers among us should be standing proud and tall: Jackie Andrade, a professor of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, found during a 2009 investigation that doodlers actually are more alert—and that they remember what happens in a business meeting better than their colleagues who maintain a more professional demeanor. The reason? Those who are bored and don’t doodle may be daydreaming; and as a result, may miss what’s really on the agenda. Andrade says, Typically what happens is that the brain ends up manufacturing its own material.”

This brings us back to doodling. The function of doodling, according to Andrade, whose findings were published in the journal, Applied Cognitive Psychology and  also covered on-air by NPR, is to provide just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from taking the more radical step of totally opting out of the situation and running off into a fantasy world.

And it doesn’t matter what you draw—pyramids, circles, people, animals, or your name. “If you look at people’s brain function when they’re bored, we find that they are using a lot of energy—their brains are very active,” Andrade says. he reason, she explains, is that the brain is designed to constantly process information. But when the brain finds an environment barren of stimulating information, it’s a problem.

In fact, she says, “You wouldn’t want the brain to just switch off, because a bear might walk up behind you and attack you: You need to be on the lookout for something happening.”

Andrade tested her theory by playing a lengthy and boring tape of a telephone message to a roomful of people—only half of whom had been given a doodling task. After the tape ended she quizzed them on what they had retained and found that the doodlers remembered much more than the nondoodlers. “They remembered about 29% more information from the tape than the people who were just listening to the tape,” Andrade says.

In other words, doodling doesn’t detract from concentration; it can help by diminishing the need to resort to daydreams.

It’s a very good strategy for the next time you find yourself stuck in a meeting, listening to a long-winded, fact-filled presentation. Just doodle away and ignore those withering glares.

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