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Tuesday, September 02, 2014  
Go ahead and doodle
Long deemed frivolous, doodling, otherwise known as scribbling, has an important purpose and you can harness it, writes Catherine De Lange

FORMER US president Ronald Reagan filled margins with kitsch cowboys, while the poet John Keats went for flowers. The doodles of mathematician Stanislaw Ulam were more seminal. While listening to a boring presentation at a conference in 1963, he jotted down a series of numbers in a spiral. He realised this was a brilliant way to visualise the occurrence of prime numbers, revealing unexpected patterns within the distribution of the primes. His scribbles are now known as the Ulam Spiral. Doodling is often viewed as nothing more than mindless drawing we do when bored. Yet Ulam’s discovery hints that we shouldn’t be too quick to label it as frivolous. The fact that it is so automatic and so common suggests doodling is good for something. But what could that be?

Sigmund Freud believed that the automatic way in which people doodle revealed something about their psyche: that the scribbles were a window into the subconscious. A doodler drawing trees, for instance, might be preoccupied with life and growth.

The idea that doodles can be ‘read’ is still popular, yet there is little science to back it up. In 2009, a group of students from Capital University in Ohio wanted to see whether people in heightened emotional states produced more complex doodles. They monitored a group of fellow students doodling during class and then got them to fill out a mood-rating questionnaire, but found no correlation at all.

A second study at the same university revealed a more interesting finding, though. This explored whether the complexity of someone’s doodling correlated with how distracted that person was. Nothing of the sort -- those who produced complex doodles while watching an educational video did just as well at recalling the film’s details as those who did not. Admittedly this study, too, was a student project rather than peer-reviewed research, but it hinted that doodling may not deserve its reputation as a distraction.

This idea gained credibility when Jackie Andrade, a psychologist at the University of Plymouth, the UK, became interested in the nature of daydreaming and how doodling might affect the occurrence and intrusion of certain thoughts. Her curiosity was prompted by findings suggesting that, rather than switching off when we daydream, several areas of the brain -- collectively referred to as the default network-- burst into action. “When we’re bored, there’s still a lot of brain activity happening: we are never just doing nothing,” she says. The job of the default network might be to sort through memories during downtime, scavenge for information to stop the feeling of boredom, or even to make plans for the future.

Andrade wondered whether there were simple cognitive tasks that bored people could do to block the most distracting daydreams. To put this to the test, she made two groups of volunteers listen to a tedious and monotonous voicemail message. Both groups were asked to jot down the names of people who would be attending a party, but these were interspersed with dull and irrelevant chitchat. Andrade reckoned that during these stretches, people would probably start to daydream. The only difference was that one group was encouraged to doodle while listening.

When the recording finished, the participants were also quizzed on how much of the call they could remember. The findings provide ammunition for all whose idle doodlings are frowned upon. Not only did the doodlers perform better during the task, successfully noting down more names, but they also remembered more information afterwards: 29 per cent more details than the non-doodling group. Far from distracting them from the task at hand, doodling seemed to increase their concentration.

Why should this be? Andrade suspects doodling keeps our brain at an optimum level of arousal. Daydreams are often about emotional topics, she says, “like worrying about whether you’re going to see the boy you fancy at the club”. Such thoughts take a lot of cognitive effort. Doodling seems to prevent the mind wandering into the most distracting territory. It could also stop us from dozing off.

If doodling actually helps us concentrate, then maybe it’s time we all put pen to paper more often. So says Sunni Brown, author of the forthcoming book The Doodle Revolution.

Brown believes that changing our perception of doodling could have far-reaching benefits. Aside from helping us to remember more information, doodling could also make us better at problem-solving and even help us deal with depression, she says. Brown argues that it encourages people to see problems in a way they would not do otherwise.

Andrade says there could be something to the idea that doodling helps with depression, but has her own explanation as to why. She points to the idea that doodling can prevent the mind wandering too far from the moment. “The problem with depression is you tend to ruminate on things going wrong and negative thoughts then perpetuate the idea,” she says.

As for the problem-solving benefits, Brown believes not all doodles are born equal, which could explain how Ulam came up with a great insight through his scribbles. The key was probably that his spirals were related to the very subject matter he was finding it hard to concentrate on.

“The power and relevance of doodling are very specific to the context,” says Brown, who champions “strategic” doodling.

Tribune Media Service
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