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Go Ahead and Doodle

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Every week in church, I sit near a gentleman who consistently doodles.  The minute the pastor starts the sermon, the pencil comes out and the drawings start.  So is this man checking out? or is he, in fact, more focused on the message because he is doodling?  Now I have to admit, I, too, am a doodler.  Sometimes I doodle to enhance my notes (little arrows and pics to connect ideas)  and sometimes to keep my mind engaged.  And yep, sometimes I doodle because I am dreadfully bored in a meeting and drawing little funny faces or random geometric designs keeps me awake.  Research now shows the folks who draw during sermons, the kiddos who add little pics along side their class notes, and the employees who sketch random designs in meetings are actually more engaged, focused, and creative.

In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, found that doodlers find it easier to recall dull information than non-doodlers.  The researcher asked 40 people to monitor a 2 1/2 minute dull and rambling voice mail message.  Half the group doodled, and the other half did not.  The participants did not know their memories were being tested.  When both groups were asked to recall details of the voicemail, those that doodled were better at paying attention. They recalled 29% more of the details than the non-doodlers. It appears that without doodling, folks tend to daydream and well, check out.

Doodling is a form of fidgeting, not unlike swinging your feet, changing position, or tapping a pencil.  It keeps you alert and awake. It basically keeps the brain switch turned on.  Paying attention is hard - really hard.  Studies vary in their findings about how long an average adult can pay attention.  Some say as little as 5 minutes while others indicate that 15-20 minutes is the maximum amount of time for concentrated attention on any given subject.  Either way, children and adults alike are often asked to pay attention much past the 20 minute mark.  So we should not be surprised that our brains have come up with a strategy for dealing with the gap between how long we can really pay attention and how long we are expected to pay attention.

Drawing and doodling is a natural human activity.  The youngest amongst us across the entire globe enjoy drawing.  Think back to your childhood.  I imagine you drew pictures in the sand or mud with a stick; perhaps you were a sidewalk chalk kid; or maybe you favored crayons and finger painting .  Unfortunately, the joy of drawing and the ability to love it simply for the process not the outcome dwindles as we age.  John Hendrix, author of the book, Drawing is Magic, says a weird thing happens when artists (people) grow up.  He says, "We stop having fun.  As a kid you draw without any thought  to enjoying it.  Enjoying it is assumed!  Then we get to art school (class) and learn there is a right and wrong way to make images…We have to be trained to learn to play again."  Doodling is just that - play.  It gives our "focus" brain circuits a break and unleashes creative thoughts and helps us imagine and see things through a different lens.  It may even help us connect the dots.

Dr. Robert Burns, the former director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of Seattle, uses doodles to diagnose the emotional problems of his patients.  Many doodle researchers agree that patient doodles can reveal thought patterns and ultimately disclose more than talk therapy alone.  A form of art therapy, some mental health professionals are encouraging the practice of doodling to help patients wade through depression and anxiety.  The drawings give the mental health professional a window into the minds of their clients.

Doodling and drawing free from the burden of right, wrong, good, or bad is beneficial for focus, creativity, and even our mental health.  It isn't about art.  It is about thinking in a different way and engaging our playful side once again.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health.  For more information or to suggest article topics, contact Lorraine at or 585-335-4327.  

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