Don't Discount the Doodling

I feel exposed without a pen and paper in a meeting. I guess its hard to take the student out of me because for one thing I take notes on everything. But they’re guaranteed to have doodles all over them. I doodle all the time. Now I should clarify what I mean by “doodle” right off the bat. I can’t draw things or people worth a damn. My three year old daughter can sketch a better stick figure than I can. No, I scribble down words, fill in all the “o”s on whatever document or agenda has been handed out in the meeting, or outline geometric patterns and color in random sections like a piece of stained glass. I like dots a lot. And wavy lines. Maybe even a smiley face or flower here and there.

I can’t say for sure why I doodle. It’s not like I’m trying to capture this quick visual representation of the conversation – that would be an amazing skill which I sadly just do not have. Maybe it’s nervous energy – akin to restless leg syndrome. I’ve never suffered from ADD or lack of ability to focus so it’s not like I’m distracted. (You’ll rarely catch me missing something that was just said and when you do it’s almost certain to be one of two things. Either I’ve been up all night or I haven’t had a cup of coffee yet.) One thing is for sure, my doodling is not an entirely conscious exercise. My brain just goes. And I inevitably reach a point in the meeting where I realize that everybody can see that I’ve been doodling and, unlike my creatively-inspired (and wired) colleagues, don’t have a sheet of paper full of great ideas, word plays, or logo sketches. And then I feel really bad. Cause I know they think I’m not engaged or paying attention. So this is usually where I try to jump in and say anything just to prove that I am indeed alive and following the discussion.

You can imagine my joy when I heard a story on NPR the other day about the upside to doodling. Turns out that doodling’s bad reputation is really misguided. To doodle is not “to waste (time) in foolish activity” as the dictionary would have you believe. It’s not necessarily “absent-minded scribbling” or “aimless scrawl”. No no – doodling, in addition to just being a great word phonetically, can actually help you retain information. Rather than signify someone that is distracted and disengaged, a recent study in Applied Cognitive Psychology suggests that doodling is a way for the brain to avoid becoming disengaged. To keep itself from slipping away into daydreaming or succumbing to boredom. Students who were tasked with doodling while listening to a phone call remembered 29% more information from the call than the students who didn’t doodle. Both sets of students took written notes from the call. But only one set doodled, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the doodling ‘task’ was to color in squares and circles on a page!

Then there’s the whole doodle as a “window in to your personality” angle. It can be quite insightful to scan a person’s doodles when they’re through. I’m not sure I would take it quite as far as a professional handwriting analysis does on the homepage for the U.K.’s National Doodle Day: Circles, squares and triangles often appear in doodles. These shapes are hugely symbolic and can be linked with our basic needs for love, security, sex and survival. Seriously now. A wee bit of a stretch, don’t you think? Nevertheless looking at someone else’s doodles can be fascinating. Some people are even willing to pay money for celebrity doodles. Fortunately for us, USA National Doodle Day is just around the corner on May 7th. For 10 days you will be able to bid on celebrity doodles on eBay (many which frankly are just too artistic to qualify as doodles in my book). And the money goes to a good cause — help patients and families affected by neurofibromatosis. Even President Obama has a doodle, and a pretty good likeness of some fellow Democrats at that!

So please don’t discount your fellow doodlers, or your own idle doodling. Do get out a piece of paper and a pen and keep it handy with you all day.

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