An Upside to Doodling

by Site Author


I stopped doodling in sixth grade. The precise moment when I stopped: class was about to begin, and I had several pieces of notebook paper at the ready. I jotted down the date, and then, out of boredom, started to sketch little figures at the top of the page.

The teacher, very much a member of the old guard, noticed me doodling. She came over and glared at me. “This isn’t art class.”

Today, there’s a growing sense that doodling is not the waste of time she thought it was. Even remarkably productive people doodle. Take, for instance, the sketch above, which President Eisenhower made during a White House meeting. Many presidents doodled through meetings.

Doodling has more recently become the object of research. A psychologist, Jackie Andrade, recently performed a lab experiment designed to measure whether there’s an upside to doodling. Participants were told to listen to a monotonous voicemail message. The message slowly listed the names of eight people who could attend a party and the names of three people who could not.

The participants were divided into two groups. Both groups were asked to jot down the names of people attending the party. But those in the “doodling group” were asked to color in shapes when they were not writing down names.

After the message was played, the participants were given a surprise recall test. The doodlers could recall an average of 5.1 names from the voicemail, whereas the participants who were not asked to doodle could only recall 4.0 names.

Andrade can only speculate as to why doodling seemed to help. Perhaps doodling prevents daydreaming. As she puts it, perhaps doodling helps “to stabilize arousal at an optimal level.” Clearly, more research is needed, and results like this need to be replicated.

But, at the very least, it should be no surprise that so many presidents doodled. The practice actually might have made them more effective in meetings. Hence the anecdote:

After Somali militiamen killed eighteen U.S. soldiers in October 1993, President Clinton convened his national-security team. He sat silently while being briefed. Then, his aide Richard Clarke recalled, “When they had talked themselves out, Clinton stopped doodling and looked up. ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.'”

If I could go back in time, I’d describe all of that to my sixth-grade teacher. I can only wonder as to what impression it would make.