Ever find yourself drawing patterns on a notepad during a presentation? Then you're in good company. Keats liked nothing better than to draw pretty flowers in the margins of his manuscripts - and they were some of the best poems what was ever wrote. Similarly, many of John F Kennedy's official papers were littered with elaborate drawings of yachts. Even Leonardo Da Vinci left behind hundreds of scribbled drawings, some of which were clearly inspirational in his later work. For instance, on one he simply wrote: 'Must get round to painting that ceiling.'
The truth is, although often triggered by boredom, doodling is far from an idle pastime that suggests you're not paying full attention. In fact, according to research, the reverse is true. It not only aids creativity, it can also help focus your attention and improve your memory. To test this theory, Professor Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth asked forty students to listen to a recorded message giving details of a forthcoming party. They were then asked to write down the names of everyone who had accepted the invitation, whilst ignoring those who had declined.
Crucially, these participants were already pretty bored at the start of the task. They'd just finished another 'study' which had been designed to be mind-numbingly boring and were then left to sit in a dull, sparsely furnished room for a while. To top it all – I use the term advisedly – the voice on the tape was deliberately monotonous. So, even though the task was simple, would they be able to concentrate long enough to recall the names?
As is so often the case with these studies, there was a touch of what psychologists call 'experimental manipulation'. That is to say, half the participants were told to 'fill in' some little squares and circles at the same time as writing down the names. The rest just listened to the message, only writing down the names and not doodling. The result? The 'doodlers' managed to recall significantly more names than the non-doodlers.
But as Frank Carson used to say, there's more.
I met Frank Carson once. Funny guy. Nice guy.
Anyway, participants were later given a surprise memory test about other details of the party, even though they had been told they didn't need to recall anything but the names. Again, the results showed that those who doodled throughout the task remembered more of the detail than the non-doodlers. Almost 30% more. Proof indeed, that doodling doesn't just enhance attention but also benefits memory.
From this, Andrade concluded that when we perform a simple task, our mind naturally wanders. But when we doodle, this concentrates the mind and stops it from wandering without interfering with the primary task. Instead, it keeps us sufficiently engaged with the moment to pay attention to simple pieces of information.
So the next time you spot someone doodling during your presentation, don't be offended. They're quite possibly paying more attention than most. It's when they stand up and heckle that you know it's time to leave.