Why Doodling May Help Improve Your Memory

In a victory for absent-minded scribblers everywhere, one study now suggests that doodling can help your memory. Though research suggests multitasking or daydreaming can be distracting, psychologist Jackie Andrade of the University of Plymouth in England thought it might be a different story for a simple task like doodling.

She asked 40 adult volunteers to listen to a monotonous mock telephone message about a party. Half the participants were told to doodle (filling in some random printed shapes) while listening to the message and to write down mentioned partygoers' names but to ignore all the other information. The other half were told to do the same, except they weren't given the doodling option. Later all 40 listeners were asked what they remembered from the message on a surprise memory test. The results, published online Thursday in Applied Cognitive Psychology, suggest that the doodlers actually had better recall: on average they remembered 29 percent more information, and they also wrote down more partygoers' names accurately.

Andrade spoke with NEWSWEEK's Dina Fine Maron about the virtues of doodling, and why texting might be the anti-doodle. Excerpts:

Why do a study on doodling?
I was interested in daydreaming, although we didn't actually measure daydreaming. When you have something really boring to do in a laboratory, you aren't just doing that task—you are thinking about shopping, picking the kids up from school, what you're going to have for tea. We don't usually take those things into account. Daydreaming takes up a lot of mental energy and can be distracting. I had the idea that maybe some small, simple task would catch just enough energy to keep you focused on the [main] task at hand, and though it wouldn't make the task you're doing less boring, it could help you focus.

What are the implications for someone in a school setting?
Doodling can be a good thing. If there's a choice between doodling and daydreaming, you're better off if your students are doodling. Of course, it's best if you aren't boring them at all, but doodling isn't necessarily a sign of your students being naughty—it's a sign that it may be hard for them to concentrate without something visual.

You are a professor, right?

So, in light of your findings, will you be more willing to allow your students to doodle in class?
I think I might be. If it's a sign of them being bored, then it would worry me a bit. Really, they're more likely to text each other, though.

Do you think texting also helps them with their memory?
No, I think not. I think that's them just being distracted.

Does this only apply to doodling, or can it also relate to more elaborate drawing in class?
I think that probably involves more effort. The thing about the doodle is that it's much easier to do because it's so repetitive.

Is anyone else doing research on this?
Not that I'm aware of, certainly not like this. There is certainly a good amount on daydreaming. One of the things we do know about daydreaming is that it uses a lot of mental effort. You'll actually find quite high levels of arousal in the brain during daydreaming; the brain is always looking for things to do.

Can any other activities help people fight boredom but still allow them to focus on their main task?
Another obvious area [to look at] is listening to the radio. People like to throw it on and listen to music while doing other things. That might be another area to look into. For now, though, we were looking at something that is predominantly visual. Usually, if you do two things at once there's a competition for resources to do other tasks, but with doodling it's just so simple.

Is that why you chose doodling, then?
People do it naturally, and I like to look at applying psychology to real life. And it's visual. Someone may do this while listening to a lecture or on the phone. I actually do doodle a lot when I'm on the phone because there's nothing to look at.

Are you doodling right now?
I was. Now I'm not, but I was.