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Doodling gets its due: those tiny artworks may aid memory

March 2, 2009
Courtesy Wiley-Blackwell Publishing
and World Science staff

Doo­dling while lis­ten­ing does­n’t nec­es­sarily imply a wan­der­ing mind—in fact, it can help with re­mem­ber­ing de­tails, a new study sug­gests. 

Ac­cord­ing to the re­search pub­lished Feb. 26 in the research jour­nal Ap­plied Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­o­gy, peo­ple giv­en a doo­dling task while lis­ten­ing to a dull phone mes­sage had a 29 per­cent im­proved re­call com­pared to non-doo­dling coun­ter­parts.

For­ty mem­bers of the re­search pan­el of the Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil’s Cog­ni­tion and Brain Sci­ences Un­it in Cam­bridge, U.K. were asked to lis­ten to a 2½-min­ute tape giv­ing sev­er­al names of peo­ple and places, and were told to write down only the names of peo­ple go­ing to a par­ty. 

Twen­ty of the par­ti­ci­pants were asked to shade in shapes on a piece of pa­per at the same time, but pay­ing no at­ten­tion to neat­ness. Par­ti­ci­pants were not asked to doo­dle nat­u­rally so that they would not be­come self-con­scious. Par­ti­ci­pants weren’t told it was a mem­o­ry test.

Af­ter the tape had fin­ished, all par­ti­ci­pants were asked to re­call the eight names of the par­ty-goers which they were asked to write down, as well as eight ad­di­tion­al place names which were in­clud­ed as in­ci­den­tal in­forma­t­ion. The doo­dlers re­called on av­er­age 7.5 names of peo­ple and places com­pared to only 5.8 by the non-doo­dlers, re­search­ers re­ported.

“If some­one is do­ing a bor­ing task, like lis­ten­ing to a dull tel­e­phone con­versa­t­ion, they may start to day­dream,” said study re­searcher Jack­ie An­drade of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Plym­outh, U.K. “Day­dream­ing dis­tracts them from the task, re­sult­ing in poorer per­for­mance. A sim­ple task, like doo­dling, may be suf­fi­cient to stop day­dream­ing with­out af­fect­ing per­for­mance on the main task.”

“In psy­chol­o­gy, tests of mem­o­ry or at­ten­tion will of­ten use a sec­ond task to se­lec­tively block a par­tic­u­lar men­tal pro­cess. If that pro­cess is im­por­tant for the main cog­ni­tive task then per­for­mance will be im­paired. My re­search shows that ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects of sec­ondary tasks, such as doo­dling, on con­centra­t­ion may off­set the ef­fects of se­lec­tive block­ade,” added An­drade. “This study sug­gests that in eve­ry­day life doo­dling may be some­thing we do be­cause it helps to keep us on track with a bor­ing task, rath­er than be­ing an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion that we should try to re­sist do­ing.”


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Doodling while listening doesn’t necessarily imply a wandering mind—in fact, it can help with remembering details, a new study suggests. According to the research published Feb. 26 in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, people given a doodling task while listening to a dull phone message had a 29% improved recall compared to non-doodling counterparts. Forty members of the research panel of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, U.K. were asked to listen to a two and a half minute tape giving several names of people and places, and were told to write down only the names of people going to a party. Twenty of the participants were asked to shade in shapes on a piece of paper at the same time, but paying no attention to neatness. Participants were not asked to doodle naturally so that they would not become self-conscious. None of the participants were told it was a memory test. After the tape had finished, all participants in the study were asked to recall the eight names of the party-goers which they were asked to write down, as well as eight additional place names which were included as incidental information. The doodlers recalled on average 7.5 names of people and places compared to only 5.8 by the non-doodlers, researchers reported. “If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream,” said study researcher Jackie Andradeof the University of Plymouth, U.K. “Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poorer performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task.” “In psychology, tests of memory or attention will often use a second task to selectively block a particular mental process. If that process is important for the main cognitive task then performance will be impaired. My research shows that beneficial effects of secondary tasks, such as doodling, on concentration may offset the effects of selective blockade,” added Andrade. “This study suggests that in everyday life doodling may be something we do because it helps to keep us on track with a boring task, rather than being an unnecessary distraction that we should try to resist doing.”