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Doodling: bane to teachers but a boost to the brain

I went to “teacher school”; even was one for a while. And I have to say unequivocally that there was no information about how a child learns — just what they should learn.

I guess that is why I became an occupational therapist. I needed to know what was going on “inside” not just the outside — as they say, can be deceiving.

And so it is the case of “doodlers”. Admonished for “not paying attention” they are often made to feel belittled and self-conscious about something they really do on “auto-pilot”.

Recent research has shown that doodling actually helps learning!! The child may not look like he or she is paying attention but science says otherwise. In findings published in Applied Cognitive Psychology (2009) test subjects who doodled while listening to recorded messages had a 29% better recall than those who didn’t.

The article goes no to state that, “If someone is doing a boring task, like listening to a dull telephone conversation, they may start to daydream,” study researcher Professor Jackie Andrade, of the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, said in a news release issued by the journal’s publisher. “Daydreaming distracts them from the task, resulting in poorer performance. A simple task, like doodling, may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task.”

Various articles on associative memory contend that doodling can boost retention up to 50% for immediate recall. In other articles there is information that doodling actually helps the learner “opt-IN” to discussions by enhancing recall invigorating multiple neural pathways.

Science is giving a new slant on doodlers, fidgeters, and, Heaven forbid — whisperers!! Reprimands from teachers (and even bosses) may soon be a thing of shame to them NOT to the “culprit”. “Pay attention”, “Are you listening, I will not repeat myself” and “Am I bothering you?” and similar phrases are more than inappropriate, demeaning and harsh — they scientifically wrong.

TIME Magazine (Feb. 2009) states a study that defines the benefits of doodling very simply. It prevents daydreaming. Daydreaming tends to trigger the brain to recruit other networks that shift your attention to other things so you cannot focus on the tasks at hand. Doodling does just the opposite; it keeps the motor running so the brain can focus. And historically we have had some rather impressive doodlers: Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D Roosevelt, John Keats and Bill Gates to name a few.

Other studies support that doodlers tend to be more organized than their non-doodler counterparts. Doodling, it is reported, actually helps clear the mind by relieving stress and aiding in relaxation. So what is the problem? Obviously with the people that doodling seems to upset. (Teachers??) “Paying attention” in class usually means sitting up straight, feet on the floor, not touching anyone else and eyes on your work or the teacher.

Research has a different slant on doodling. Similar to the analysis of dreams, the inspection of doodles can actually create a better understanding of how a mind works. It is the connection between the conscious and unconscious and that is where we learn. Rather than a distraction, doodling can assist in triggering many major routes for us to store information into long-term memory.

Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard University neurophysiologist writes in her book, Vision and Art: the Biology of Seeing that art is a “spin-off” of our brains visual system and this connection cues neurons. Not only does it help us pay attention, it also helps our mind wander into unimagined areas stimulating associative thinking aiding in symbolic expression.

What is known about doodling is that it increases arousal in the brain and forces it to use up just enough energy to STOP it from daydreaming. Doodling seems to stimulate the right side of the brain that mediates visualizations (reading and writing) leaving the left side (information gathering) to relax and absorb information more readily. Both sides together allow the person to synthesize the total concept being presented.

Encouraging doodling may be a route to increasing attention in class. Wouldn’t it be amazing if “Increase doodling while listening” became an IEP goal?

Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L, is the author of Learning Re-enabled, a guide for parents, teachers and therapists and Write Incredibly Now™ 12 hours to better handwriting. She is the Executive Director of Children’s Special Services, LLC, in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached on the Web at www.childrens-services.com Her WIN™ program is available through YourTherapySource.com.

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