If you’ve ever had a teacher or boss who told you to stop scribbling on your papers, you’ve just been vindicated. The extra sketching and random writing you did was actually good for your mental health. A study shows that doodling improves memory and focus, and it can also reveal your inner desires.
Psychologist Jackie Andrade put this theory to the test when she asked 40 people to monitor a 2 1/2 minute rambling voicemail. Twenty of the people doodled — by shading in a shape — as they listened to the recording, while the other 20 did not. When asked to recall details from the call, participants who doodled paid better attention to the message and recalled 29 percent more information.
Experts believe there are many reasons why this occurred. One is that when we are bored, our fight-or-flight system tries to keep us attentive and awake. Doodling, which is another form of fidgeting, could be your body’s attempt at staying alert and in the moment. Free-drawing can keep you from falling asleep or staring off blankly when your brain has zoned out.
Also, having to pay continuous attention to stimuli creates a sort of brain strain, and doodling provides your mind with a little break without total abandonment of interests. A report done on medical students’ learning styles showed that doodling was helpful to their workload of retaining large amounts of information — if it was done for limited time spans. A 30-minute doodling session helped the students remember information, fill in thinking gaps and gave them a break from the loads of information they had to retain.
Doodling Can Also Reveal What’s on Your Mind
Dr. Robert Burns, the former director of the Institute for Human Development at the University of Seattle, believes that doodles are much more than scribble, random words or sketches of faces. He uses them to diagnose the emotional problems of patients.
“If you find yourself doodling pictures of houses, you probably place a high value on shelter and security,” says Dr. Burns. Another doodle symbol that could reveal what an individual values is a dollar sign, which could indicate a preoccupation with money. Images of planes, cars or ships may indicate a desire to travel, alter relationships, or change one’s life.
Dr. Burns says that doodling works much like the way an electroencephalogram, or EEG, transmits brain activity to a piece of paper, only it’s your hand doing the interpreting of what is on your mind.
“The messages are there, after all. No one’s surprised that an electroencephalogram can chart brain waves using a stylus attached by way of electrodes to the brain,” he says. “The only difference with doodling is that we use a pen attached to the brain by nerves and muscles.”
Doodling analysis should be a part of the clinical procedure of every psychologist or psychiatrist, says Dr. Burns. He believes that larger patterns, themes and ideas of doodle symbolism and their significance often emerge in individuals over time.
“Even at their simplest, the idle jottings we repeat in the margins of our notebooks can evoke childhood memories and associations that provide clues even to our obsessions,” adds Dr. Burns. “Stars, for instance, show up all the time in the drawings of emotionally deprived children. Stars are what we wish upon. People who fill their doodles with stars may be longing for something they were deprived of, like love or affection.”