ou’re sitting in a faculty meeting and starting to lose
focus. Not wanting your colleagues to think you’re zoning out, you keep your pen to your notebook and move it
around aimlessly while pretending to diligently take notes.
At the end of meeting, you glance down to find your page
filled with an array of squiggly circles or stars, or perhaps
more elaborate shapes.
If your colleagues were to catch a glance at the page,
they may be miffed and accuse you of not paying attention.
But, studies have shown that doodling may actually help to
promote creativity, active listening and recall.
Peter Schwenger, a professor emeritus of English at
Mount St. Vincent University, acknowledges that doodling
is often something you do when you’re tired and “simply can’t drag out
another sentence.” But, he says, “At such times, at least you’re still making
marks on paper, instead of just getting up and walking away.”
Dr. Schwenger, who is also a resident fellow at the Centre for the
Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University, did a presentation
on doodling at the annual meeting of the Association of Canadian College
and University Teachers, or ACCUTE, during the 2016 Congress for the
Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. His research is focused pri-
marily on asemic writing – writing that has no specific semantic content –
but he has also pursued several byways, doodling among them. A doodler
never knows in advance what the final product is going to be, he says.
“The line is followed out almost as if it had a will of its own, and it may
take surprising shapes.”
Sunni Brown, who’s been called a doodle evangelist, takes it a step
further, stating that we need to change the culture around doodling.
Author of The Doodle Revolution and founder of Sunni Brown Ink, a “visual
thinking” consultancy in Austin, Texas, Ms. Brown explains in her 2011
TED Talk that doodling is native to us all, even though it’s been ingrained
in us that it’s bad.
“I’ve heard horror stories from people whose teachers scolded them,
of course, for doodling in classrooms,” she says in her 2011 talk, which
has been viewed more than 1. 25 million times. “And they have bosses
who scold them for doodling in the boardroom. There is a powerful
cultural norm against doodling in settings in which we are supposed to
She continues: “We think doodling is something you do when you lose
focus, but in reality, it is a pre-emptive measure to stop you from losing
focus. Additionally, it has a profound effect on creative problem-solving
and deep information processing.”
Dr. Schwenger agrees. “The most original research is often driven by
curiosity or fascination. It’s a bit like a detective story, with false leads,
breakthroughs and the ongoing investment in learning how it’s all going
to turn out. Doodling, with its apparently aimless evolution, enacts that
process of discovery. It may remind a baffled or stymied scholar that re-
search has a will of its own, and will sort itself out in the end,” he says.
The actual research on doodling is, however, relatively slim. Perhaps
the seminal study in this area, published in the journal Applied Cognitive
Psychology in 2009, showed that doodling can help with recall. In the study
by Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., two groups were asked to listen to a monotonous phone
conversation. One group was told to just listen to the call, while the other
group was instructed to shade in shapes on a page while listening. Dr.
Andrade found that the doodling group recalled 29 percent more information from the phone call than the non-doodling group.
However, an article in the 2012 edition of the University of British
Columbia’s Undergraduate Journal of Psychology found that doodling had
a negative effect on visual recall. The study, by UBC psychology student
Elaine Chan, found that subjects who were asked to doodle while viewing a slideshow were less able to recall the images they had seen than
non-doodlers. “Doodling may only be beneficial in dual-task situations
where the two tasks do not compete for the same information processing
resources,” the study concluded.
michiko maruyama started doing daily doodles while in medical
school at UBC in the early 2010s, basing them on what she was learning.
Her doodles were detailed and colourful – perhaps not surprising since
Dr. Maruyama has a degree in industrial design from the University of
Alberta. Thinking that others might like to see her doodles, she began
posting them on Facebook.
“Then one day my father called me, very disappointed. He said, ‘What
are you doing? You’re in medical school now. You should behave like a
med student. You have to stop this art thing,’” recalls Dr. Maruyama.