The Connection Between the Idle Doodle and the Visual Mind

by Ryan Zimmerman

As a teacher, when you see the top of someone’s head during a lecture, your initial impression is that the student is not paying attention. Thus, you tell them to look up, to abandon the little flowers flowing in between the words, or the detailed robot posing in the margins. “Keep your eyes on the board,” you say. 

 Doodling is a common and popular way to relieve boredom, stimulate creativity, and apparently, ignore one’s education. But is this really true? For visual learners, doodling is a way to express thoughts in their purest form. The association of pictures with words while learning allows concepts to take a more accessible form for many students and workers. Imagery can make complex topics simple, and much more memorable. In one study in 2009, participants were read a list of names; some were asked to doodle, while some just listened. The doodling group remembered, on average, 29% more names than those who simply listened. Doodling tethers attention; it keeps the listener from drifting off into their own imagination. 

When you learn something new, connections are built in your brain, training it to recognize and retrieve the information you’ve processed. Neural pathways, as these connections are called, are formed by new learning. They have to be reinforced, reviewed, and explored if the person wants to retain the information; otherwise, they will weaken and be forgotten. By recalling this information and regurgitating it in a different form, doodlers are actually strengthening the neural pathways formed when they learn something new. This process of knowledge reinforcement is called tracing. Picture a line- imagine tracing over the line, over and over. The line gets darker and thicker. Much the same happens when you use these pathways in different ways; the information solidifies itself in your brain so you can access it faster and with more accuracy.

As a result of the brain’s tendency to rely on association, some, when shown a doodle they worked on during a lecture, are able to recall what they heard while drawing. This powerful mental connection, even without a relation between the drawing(s) and the topic, allows the person yet another way to enforce their knowledge. 

According to one article*, “Doodling is a low-stakes activity that empowers students to explore material without fear of judgment or failure.” A specific method of doodling, recommended by Christine Selby in her book, Chilling Out: The Psychology of Relaxation, involves repetitive lines, simple spirals, and soft shapes. Putting a pen to paper without the pressure of mistakes or necessity of concentration is comforting to our brains, and allows us to release some of our stress. In addition to the positive effect doodling could have on our grades, it could also improve our moods and boost our creativity.

Learning is categorized as visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic; doodling combines all 4, which means it is multisensory learning- an incredibly popular idea in education. It also involves a person’s emotional response to the content, so it is extremely indicative of what they genuinely understood. This makes doodling a great way to assess the extent to which a student understood a concept. 

In her TED Talk**, Sunni Brown shows that historically, children have a measurable progression in drawing- and thus, in visual understanding- that can be defined in steps, shown below:

Across time periods, drawing is a constant; some of the world’s greatest developments began from scribbles in a margin. Doodling is an instinctual way for humans to classify their ideas. Utilizing our visual nature to our advantage when learning can be an incredible tool, if we let it.

*4 Surprising Benefits to Doodling in the Classroom

**Sunni Brown: Doodlers, Unite!

Read more:

The Power of the Doodle: Improve Your Focus and  Memory

10 Benefits of Doodling for Creativity, Productivity and Focus:

 The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom