The Power of Doodle

The origin of this post goes back to 2011, much has changed since, including my own personal development and career. But let’s get the pens out: I was rather keen on going back to the topic of doodles as I have become more and more interested in Sketchnoting, which you could think about as purposeful doodles. So this blogpost will have the original musings about Doodles, but updated literature. I will follow this up with two more posts one on getting into Sketchnoting and an update on (maybe bullet)-journaling.

How it all began. When working as effective learning advisor during my PhD and transitioning out of it. One question I was often asked was: How can I stay more focussed during a two hour lecture. Now luckily learners do not have to suffer through uninterrupted two hour lectures anymore since the pivot to online learning due to Covid. However, watching online lectures, and staying focused in video teaching comes with its own challenges . So the question of how to stay focused is just as valid now as it was during lectures in the physical space.

Schott (2011) argues that doodling can alleviate stress responses ‘under conditions such as impatience, boredom, and indecision’, which explains my reflection from 10 years ago: As someone who suffered through twelves years of school, plagued by perpetual boredom and the inability to sit quietly and listen, doodles have prevented me a many times from slamming my head against the desk pleading for mercy, or throwing my stationary out of the window, and start dancing on the table … Oh look the sparrows have their nest underneath the sun-blinds again.

This effect recalls other stress-alleviating motor activities such as fidgeting, scratching, and fiddling with different objects, in the same way that non-motor activities, for example playing background music, can appear calming and sometimes aid concentration and creativity.

(Schott, 2011)

10 years ago this was still: something that may induce eye-rolling in colleagues but is actually now runner-up for a strategy that enhances recollection of information as Jackie Andrade found in a research project. I have tried to substantiate this with a bit more research (see below) whereas it seems as if structured Doodling is the runner up for improved memory retention (e.g. Cohen et al, 2017). Unstructured doodling however, seems to have little or even negative impact on recall tasks (e.g. Amico & Schaefer, 2020).

However, there is another aspect to is as indicated in the Schott (2011) quote above and this relates strongly to the emotional aspects. Schott speaks about heightened arousal which may effect memory retention and focus.

Thinking at the Edge*:

10 years ago: So why Doodle?

If you have to write a paper or dissertation, or you are brooding over a problem sometimes you get to a point when you can physically feel your brain kicking in gear, but you cannot grasp it—yet. There are a lot of strategies that help. Some people have the best ideas or greatest insights, from these unconscious processes: under the shower, when going for a walk, waking up in the middle of the night, or experiencing a eureka-moment before falling asleep. Usually the ideas come when the body and mind are in a somewhat relaxed state. Doodling helps to relax and the physical aspects of ‘creating’ something seem to provide a link to subconscious processes, expressing initially intangible workings of the mind. Another such technique is free-writing**, it helps to focus and get into the moment—enjoying the flow***.

To make this post a bit more interesting here are some more doodles. I made them one evening, while pondering about the revisions for my literature review and trying to convince myself that I really ought not to rewrite the whole thing.

The following three images from left to right were made with a mirror doodle function, which created Mandala type images. The left one is written in old Germany script called Sütterlin (which my dad taught me after noticing that I had gotten bored in School in first grade) it reads: Des Menschen Wille ist sein Himmelreich, which roughly translates into the ‘the will of humans is their paradise’, the centre mandala is called world river, a disc-like mandala with leaves and flowers all in green and a river meandering through the center of the circle. Last but now least is abstract calla lilly flowers with Sütterlin writing saying dream flowers around the outer circle.

Annotated Literature List

I want to look more deeply into this, but two questions emerged from the literature below for me. Narrative (storytelling) is a way in which we remember, if a memory retention test is simply based on recalling disconnected words, maybe the doodling undertaken for this, particularly unstructured doodles, inevitably has a negative effect on recall. Because the doodles are disconnected from an overarching narrative, therefore attention is drawn away from memorizing words, maybe participants struggle to identify representations of the words to remember, and subsequently focus too much on the actual act of doodling. And this is impacting recall negatively? While when not doodling all, the focus is placed on the words to remember, so there is no distraction from attention? Which leads to the next question: do experienced doodlers, drawers, sketchnoters have a better recall than inexperienced ones? Because experienced doodlers and drawers won’t have to place focus on the process so much but the process is part of how these research participants have fostered their meaning making?

  • Amico, G., & Schaefer, S. (2020). No Evidence for Performance Improvements in Episodic Memory Due to Fidgeting, Doodling or a “Neuro-Enhancing” Drink. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 4(1), 2–11.
    • Amico and Schaefer in Germany only explored doodling as part of a study including other elements such as fidget spinners and ‘neuro-enhancing’ drinks [I never even heard of neuro-enhancing drinks!] and they were looking at encoding performance as well as episodic memory but did not find any improvements. The authors did not seem to have employed structured doodling. They actually found that Doodling worsened the performance. However, I am wondering if study design here has an impact. This makes we wonder about the relationship between doodling versus storytelling, and doodling versus a disconnected word memory task. The storytelling of a teacher talk itself provides a form of information encoding… hm
  • Cohen, J. B., & Marchand, J. L. (2017). Educational Psychology Commons Repository Citation Repository Citation Boggs. Psychological Thought, 10(1), 206–216.
  • Meade, M. E., Wammes, J. D., & Fernandes, M. A. (2019). Comparing the influence of doodling, drawing, and writing at encoding on memory. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 73(1), 28–36.
  • Nayar, B., & Koul, S. (2020). The journey from recall to knowledge A study of two factors-structured doodling and note-taking on a student’s recall ability. International Journal of Educational Management, 34(1), 127–138.
    • Nayar and Koul in India found a positive impact on recall when including doodling. However, the researchers think the lack of a significant difference might lie within the culture of the Indian education system and the central role note taking plays in learning, as well as in research design.
  • Schott, G. D. (2011). The art of medicine: Doodling and the default network of the brain. In The Lancet (Vol. 378, Issue 9797, pp. 1133–1134). Elsevier B.V.
  • Sundararaman, D. (2020). Doodle Away: Exploring the Effects of Doodling on Recall Ability of High School Students. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 12(2).
    • Sundararaman in the USA based their study on previous research and adapted it to their specific circumstances. They found better performance for the both groups of learners who undertook structured as well as unstructured doodling. Students also reported they experienced less daydreaming, and better recall.
  • Zeyab, A., Almodaires, A., & Almutairi, F. (2020). Journal of Education and Practice ISSN. 11(2).
    • While this small case study from Kuwait only had five participants the rich conversations were interesting to read. One question emerged for me from this project. Out of 30 potential participants only 5 agreed, and all of these were reported to have used visual notetaking if not since childhood, extensively during studies or work: What if when visual notetaking and doodling is something new for research participants (Has this been established in all the studies? Will have to go back to this point.) can the lack of positive impact emerge from focussing on the act of doing something new, which takes higher cognitive load, rather than an experienced doodler who thinks about the content? Will have to read more in depth about it. It remains an interesting topic.

*“THINKING AT THE EDGE” (in German: “WO NOCH WORTE FEHLEN”) is a systematic way to articulate in new terms something which needs to be said but is at first only an inchoate “bodily sense.”
** I am going to write about this in another post(I think I never did then but have two more posts lined up 10 years later … oh well ever green content and all that)
*** Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996) Creativity. Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial: New York.

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