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Doodle to Do Well

Ms. Barry’s short purple curls bounced whenever she yelled at me to pay attention. My elementary school years were filled with crayon and graphite tornadoes, spirals,  and flowers in the margins of my math-boxes. However, when work got serious in fifth grade, Ms. Barry would take away my pencil when she felt that I was not paying attention.

Four years after my fifth grade graduation, Jackie Andrade of University of Plymouth, UK found that doodling while listening to dull material could actually help listeners pay attention (2009). In her experiment, the researchers asked participants who had just completed another experiment if they would stay to listen to an “answering machine recording” that listed names of people attending a birthday party. Half of the participants listening shaded in printed shapes. At the end of the study, the participants were asked to remember as many of the eight people coming to the party as they could. The participants that had not shaded shapes were able to remember on average about 5.8 out of the possible eight names. Those who had shaded shapes were able to remember about 7.5 out of the possible eight names. This means that those doodling were significantly better at remembering the names of who were coming to the party. Although the research did not measure boredom or daydreaming, the researcher believed doodling acted as a tool to prevent daydreaming, thereby allowing the participants to be more attentive to the material they were hearing.

Had the task of doodling or listening been more difficult, then the participant would need to give more mental effort or focus to the difficult task at hand. For example, if the participants in the study were told that they needed to shade within small spaces of a detailed pattern,  then doodling would take more mental capacity.

When a person focuses on one set of information being processed but  doe not focus enough attention on the other, is know as selective attention. on the other information. Thus, doodling is likely helpful only if is automatic, meaning that it takes relatively little cognitive effort. As doodling becomes less and less automatic and more effortful,  doodlers would not be as focused on the important task of listening. In the doodling study, participants shaded versus free-doodled to make doodling more effortless. If the participants were free doodling, then they might be too concerned about having their doodles judged which might prevent them from doodling effortlessly.

Other effortless tasks, such as twirling a pencil under the table or eating a snack, could be helpful like doodling. Something effortful, like texting, would likely be detrimental to listening because it is using too many cognitive resources. Doodling is probably one of the best ways to occupy extra mental space when listening because as a study by Allport, Anthonis, and Reynolds (1972) found, we are better at processing visual and auditory information simultaneously than lots of visual information or lots of audible information. The visual information from the doodles can be processed simultaneously with either the taped recording of who is coming to the party or Ms. Barry’s voice to actually increase memory for the information heard.  Therefore if you are feeling your mind wander during a class, it might be worth doodling a swirl in the corner of your notebook. I know that it helped me to pay attention and draw better conclusions through fifth grade, and beyond


T o read the original study on doodling, click the flower doodle. flow


Allport, D.A., Antonis, B., & Reynolds, P. (1972). On the division of attention: A disproof of the single channel hypothesis. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 24, 225-235

Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, (24), 100–106. doi:10.1002/acp.1561

Kahneman, D. (1973). Attention and effort. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kellogg, R. T. (2007). Fundamentals of cognitive psychology. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.


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  1. December 1st, 2013 at 15:11 | #1

    This post was interesting and relevant to the first section of our class. I immediately thought back to the capacity framework model where attention is limited and everything demands some attention. However, capacity of attention allocated depends on whether the task is automatic or controlled. Since doodling is an automatic process, little attention needs to be allocated.

    I enjoyed reading about how researchers sought to address that doodling was an automatic process that required little effort and little attentional capacity. Therefore, it was not actually hindering students from paying attention. Although I was initially skeptical about how doodling served to improve memory, I have learned from this post that the process of doodling helps people pay attention by preventing daydreaming if the information being learned is not challenging enough. However, what if the lecture material being learned was extremely challenging? Would doodling also help people stay focused? Would doodling start becoming detrimental as it starts to take away some attentional capacity? I would be interested in understanding whether doodling in more cognitively challenging tasks would continue to improve memory.

  2. December 2nd, 2013 at 14:48 | #2

    Very interesting blog post! This definitely hits close to home as I remember receiving multiple detentions when I was younger for drawing when the teacher was talking. It’s funny to find that after all the effort I took to prevent myself from drawing in class, it does in fact does help ones ability to recall information because doodling is an automatic process. Monica proposed some really good questions in her comment above, but to add on, it would be interesting to see how doodling affects challenging information being presented from a subject you are interested in vs. not interested in. In addition, it would be interesting to look at other things that people do in classes that are frowned upon because they supposedly distract ones attention from the information being taught like texting, eating, putting ones head down on the desk, etc.

  3. December 2nd, 2013 at 17:37 | #3

    I really liked this blog post. The blog post and study is interesting because it addresses a very relevant problem in the middle school classroom, boredom. Most kids do not find subjects like grammar interesting. I know that I ended daydreaming for that 50 minute period more than once while in middle school. If I had only known that doodling would have helped me, maybe I would understand the basic mechanics of grammar a lot better. But alas I did not and am now doomed to be horrible at grammar.
    I know a lot of people who love to doodle and not doodling actually takes a lot of controlled effort. I wonder if one of the reasons doodling increased people’s ability to recall information is because, for some people, it takes more effort and attention not to doodle than it does to actually doodle. This idea is similar to the findings of the Stoop task where it took a lot of effort to not read the word and instead report the color of the ink the word was printed in. Also like the Stoop task, I wonder if the benefits of doodling increase as one gets older. Since older adults find it harder to stop automatic processes and activate controlled processes, would they benefit better from doodling or would doodling take up more of their attention and thus decrease the benefits provided by doodling?
    I was also wondering if other automatic tasks that are traditionally looked down upon in a classroom setting, such as passing, would also help a person focus and retain the information taught. Though an action like passing might distant the other students in the classroom, it would be interesting to see. Education is very important in today’s society and discovering ways to help students retain information is very relevant and important.

  4. December 2nd, 2013 at 21:52 | #4

    I’m not sure how they would do this, but it would be really interesting if they could see if free doodling produced this same effect. Or, they could test students in real classroom environments, maybe using a survey. They could look at test grades, and controlling for studying methods, see if doodlers performed better than non doodlers. I thought this was a really interesting article because I’m awful at paying attention and my margins and folders are covered in doodles, it would be great to know that doodling wasn’t such a bad thing after all!

  5. December 3rd, 2013 at 21:41 | #5

    Interesting post! I found this especially engaging because I’ve always heard conflicting information regarding whether or not doodling distracts from learning. I’m an avid “doodler” myself, so it was nice to hear I haven’t been hindering myself in the classroom all these years!
    The description about the way that the researchers had the participants shade in the printed shapes whilst listening to the answering machine reminded me of the supertaskers experiment (Watson & Strayer 2010) we learned about in PS232 where the experimenters looked at how effectively participants were able to multitask (use a driving simulator while also performing either a single or dual-task such as memorizing and recalling items, or performing math problems). It was found that, with the exception of a very small percentage of the population, people really can’t multitask. Considering these findings, one would think doodling would have the same effect on attention, however, the portion you included about doodling actually lessening daydreaming explains why this type of “multitasking” is beneficial–I guess not all multitasking is a bad thing! I’m glad to hear it!

    The finding that doodling actually increased the number of names the participants could remember also got me thinking about what an important role encoding plays in memory. We learned in class about how the way in which information is encoded (encoding specificity) plays a role in what then aids in the recall of this information. It would be interesting if this effect could be mimicked in this experiment wherein if the experimenters delayed the time between listening and asking the participants to recall the names they remembered, if this transfer appropriate processing would have an effect on their ability to recall. That is to say, would allowing the participants to doodle once again while attempting to recalling the information serve as a kind of cue for them to be better able to recall the information versus participants that were not allowed to doodle again while trying to recall?

    I agree with Monica that it would be interesting to see what would happen if the type of information being learned was more difficult than simply listening to an answering machine. Would doodling still help?

  6. December 3rd, 2013 at 23:18 | #6

    I loved this post! It was very well written, interesting, and relevant to what we’ve learned in class as well as my own personal experience. I’ve been doodling for as long as I can remember, and at times I’ve worried that the habit is negatively impacting my focus in class. I usually don’t daydream when I doodle, and I definitely think it helps me to keep focused when my eyes get tired or I don’t feel like writing down every piece of information from a slideshow. I’ve been yelled at and made fun of so many times for having margins filled with flowers, boxes, and signatures, even when the actual pages are filled with completed class notes! I definitely agree with the previous posts- I would like to see how well people retain more challenging information that would take up more of one’s mental capacity. I’d love to read more experiments about doodling and attention. I also think that an experiment to correlate doodles with personality would be very interesting!

  7. aspencer
    December 3rd, 2013 at 23:20 | #7

    Thank you all for your feedback and questions. It is interesting to think whether doodling would help if the material got more doodling, I suspect that it would not is much based on my intuition. However maybe students could diagram the challenging information in a doodle that was deliberately trying to increase understanding of the material. This would be one way of relating to the meaning of the material in a different way and building more memory traces.

    As for whether or not texting, eating, putting ones head down on the desk, etc. would help, I think it would depend. I suspect that texting and anything on the phone would hinder understanding of the material. As suggested in the original blog post, one of the benefits of doodling the visual material is not conflicting with the auditory material. This would not be true of texting. Additionally, based on the researchers thoughts she blamed the pourer scores of the non-doodling participants on daydreaming. I think this would increase with head down. Passing I believe could be good, but might be like you said be very distracting. I would find it to be. As for eating– I think we all need some class snacks.
    It would be great to redo the study to see the effects of free doodling because that would lead to increased external validity. Thanks for all the great comments!

  8. December 9th, 2013 at 15:43 | #8

    I’m curious about what you mean by “passing” – do you mean passing notes?

  9. December 3rd, 2014 at 17:03 | #9

    This was really interesting to read about. I have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notes, so it’s nice to know it can be beneficial! I definitely find that it helps me focus better on the information being presented. This connects well into the class discussion of attention models, particularly the capacity framework models. It makes sense that mindless doodling would be a more efficient alternative to daydreaming. A simple doodling task requires far less mental effort than getting completely lost in thought, so you would still have relatively more attentional resources at your disposal. I have found that for me it helps because when I have trouble focusing and start getting antsy and thinking about other things, doodling is an easy distraction that simultaneously gets me to focus on one thing. By bringing my attention to one focal point that doesn’t actually require much thought itself, it is much easier to then absorb the information being presented to me. The multiple resource theory aspect is an interesting component of this, that I had not really thought about before. Again, it makes sense then that it is possible to attend to both channels in some way, as each has different resource requirements and can be performed simultaneously with greater efficiency.
    My post looked at a similar concept, but from almost the opposite perspective: the relationship between mind wandering and fidgeting, finding that deep states of mind wandering are associated with increased fidgeting. They figured that the deeper the mind wanders, the fewer the resources available to remain sitting still, so, though sitting still is a relatively automatic process and requires few attentional resources and executive control, fidgeting would increase as a result of the depleted attentional resource pool. It is interesting though, because the study stressed that their findings represent a purely correlational relationship, not causal, so an alternative explanation for this could be that instead, fidgeting pulls attention away from the primary task, thus increasing mind wandering. So it’s interesting because this would then suggest that mindless tasks might actually play a role in daydreaming/mind wandering. But I think this falls in line better with your discussion of the level of effort of the relatively effortless task (e.g. shading shapes vs. shading small details). It would be interesting to learn more about these connections though, and find out in particular the actual direction of the relationship, and the effort threshold from which these tasks go from helpful to detrimental.

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