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Doodle? Do, to Improve Concentration

Do you want to get the very most out of reading this blog?

How about doodling while you read it?

A Jennifer Huget original.

A small study in the upcoming issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that, while many of us assume doodling reveals a certain inattentiveness, it may in fact help us focus when confronted with boring tasks.

Researchers from the school of psychology at the University of Plymouth in the UK had 20 people listen to a long (2 1/2-minute) phone message and note on a sheet of ruled paper the names of people mentioned in that message as planning to attend a fictitious party. The message (which you can read in its mundane entirety at the end of the study) contained many bluffs and red herrings but was otherwise, well, boring.

Another 20 people were assigned the same task but asked to color in pre-printed shapes on a piece of paper they were given. They were asked not to worry about how many they colored in or how neat they were and were told to record the names of party-attenders in the margin of their doodle sheet.

The coloring activity was meant to approximate random doodling; the researchers didn't have participants invent their own doodles for fear the doodlers would think the doodles were the point of the research and would be evaluated as part of the experiment. That concern might have skewed the results, researchers explained.

After listening to the phone message, participants were asked to list the names of the party-goers and the names of places mentioned on the tape. The doodlers did a 29-percent better job than the non-doodlers, coming up with an average of 7.5 names of people and places versus the non-doodlers' 5.8 names.

Researchers think doodling may help boost concentration and recall in one, or both, of two ways. It might prevent us from sliding fully into day-dreaming mode, keeping us anchored in a concrete activity. Doodling might also help us maintain just the right level of mental "arousal" that keeps our brains just interested enough to gather what we need from a conversation or phone call.

The work has implications for the workplace and the classroom, the study notes; more research is needed to pinpoint the effects of actual free-form doodling.

I doodle constantly while on the phone (unless I'm conducting an interview, when I'm busy scribbling notes) and did so all the time when I was in school, from grade school through grad school. I've never stopped to consider whether doing so has been beneficial or detrimental -- but, all things considered, my devotion to doodling seems not to have done much damage.

Do you doodle? Do you get after your kids for doodling on school papers or book covers? Does this study -- though small -- make you reconsider doodling's worth in the world?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  General Health , Pyschology  
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During my master's coursework a classmate was giving a horribly dull presentation. I was listening, but doodling.

The instructor snapped at me to stop doodling as if I were 3rd grader. All I can remember about the presentation was being snapped at.

WaPo should print the color-in doodle boxes next to all of George Will's columns. BAM! I just saved print journalism.

Posted by: d_lux | March 4, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Years ago I read a study maintaining that the common head scratching, scowling, saying something (Gosh! What's the name of that?) or other physical activity when trying to recall something helped that recall. I think it's the same thing as doodling, and it works.

The study said that centers for movement and memory were close in the brain and that somehow they jiggle one another. Dunno if that's true but something's happening.

Posted by: beoods | March 4, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I think I need to print out the study and hand out copies at every meeting I attend.

I'm always telling people that the ever-expanding patterns help me focus, and now there's some scientific support!

Posted by: trichobezoar | March 4, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I used to doodle until I got my first lawyer job after graduating from law school. Then, while reviewing a client's documents for a large lawsuit (a very boring activity in itself, I might add), I learned firsthand that the doodles you draw today can, if you aren't careful, end up as tomorrow's court exhibit.

I haven't doodled since.

Posted by: commenting | March 4, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

I don't doodle, but for a few weeks when I was in grad school I brought a knitting project to school. I do think it helped me pay attention to boring presentations from classmates. I've heard of leaders needlepointing in meetings too. Neither knitting nor needlepoint require full attention, assuming complicated patterns or stitches are required, and I think, as does doodling, they help to keep the mind involved in a concrete activity.

Posted by: ahaberm | March 4, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I've always doodled. In fact, I can look back through my notes from nursing school, many years ago, and the subjects that were particularly most boring to me had the most doodles on those notes. But, I passed the classes. I always had a hard time retaining information, so it's interesting to think that my doodling might have helped!

Posted by: ohalvey | March 4, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

It is possible to train this.]

Fred Smilek is the acting president of the Society to Save Endangered Species. It was founded two years ago by Fred Smilek along with his two best friends Charles and Jonathan.

Posted by: fredsmilek | March 4, 2009 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Doodling (and knitting) give the RIGHT side of the brain (the side that is looking for visual and spatial information) something to do that doesn't lead it off into verbal or emotional side trips that would interfere with the verbal material in a lecture or presentation or reading material. Without the doodling or knitting or whatever, your eyes are likely to wander -- looking out the window, looking at people's faces, etc. -- or just plain close. Looking around leads to daydreaming, which drags the verbal brain into what you're seeing and distracts from whatever it is you're supposed to be paying attention to. Eyes closing leads to falling asleep. Ergo, doodling/knitting etc. are most likely to improve concentration.

Posted by: herzliebster | March 5, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

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