Phone in one hand, a pen in the other and you scribble random marks while you chat, the patterns and shading becoming more elaborate as you talk. A little flourish here, a repetition of strokes there; none of it looks like anything in particular and you think nothing of it when you finish your call. But your absent-minded daubs have actually helped you increase your focus, grasp more clearly what is being said to you and improved your memory. I bet you think you can’t draw, but who cares, if the mere act of scribbling has such a powerful effect on your brain.
According to a 2011 study in The Lancet, a medical journal, some researchers suspect doodling may help the brain remain active by engaging its “default networks”—regions that maintain a baseline of activity in the cerebral cortex when outside stimuli are absent, the Lancet study says. People who were encouraged to doodle while listening to a list of people’s names being read were able to remember 29% more of the information on a surprise quiz later, according to a 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology. So if you are giving a lecture or presentation and want people to pay attention to and remember what you say, also give your audience crayons, paper and the permission to scribble.
A blank page and a pen is ripe territory for doodling and if you do it while your brain is apparently attending to something else your ability to broaden your creative thoughts and ideas, make sense of and retain what you are listening to, is hugely increased. It can also help you learn; allowing your hand to make spontaneous marks as your ears listen. It is a useful tool both at work and at school, although traditionally, getting caught at it would have got you into trouble. Now it is recognized as something to be encouraged; a way of aiding learning, processing, problem-solving, creative thinking and remembering.
The doodle can stimulate ideas for improvement, according to a 2014 study by Gabriela Goldschmidt, a professor emeritus of architecture at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a researcher on learning techniques of design. A doodle can spark a “dialog between the mind and the hand holding a pencil and the eyes that perceive the marks on paper,” the study says.
I went to Art School in the 1980’s when drawing had fallen out of favour in other London colleges; everyone was painting huge abstract images but at Byam School of Art we still had old fashioned oak paneled life drawing studios where we were encouraged to draw as a daily practice. That was decades ago and I had long since stopped drawing, but I often scribbled or doodled without any thought or dexterity, just as an accompaniment to listening or day-dreaming. Then one day I happened upon a concept called Zentangle, which is a form of combined doodling and meditation, devised by Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts in 2004 as an elegant system of structured patterns for zoning out.
“One day, Maria told Rick what she experienced as she drew background patterns on a manuscript she was creating. She described her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else. “You’re describing meditation,” Rick said.”
Using deliberate pen strokes and a vocabulary of abstract patterns, artists and non-artists alike are equally able to focus on their marks with no pre-determined end result, while their attention shifts “to a state that allows fresh thoughts, new perspectives, and creative insights to flow unhindered by anxiety or effort.”
I practice Zentangle for its own sake, but it has also led me back to my love of drawing. Doodling seems to open up your natural urges and skills, by tapping into your unconscious. Maybe the act of doodling will awaken the brain surgeon within you or release the long distance trucker desperate to get out on the open road. When you are trying to resolve a problem, take time out, pick up a pen and let it drift around the page. Try repeated circles, or lines, or geometrical shapes, dots, cross-hatching, sweeping curves or angular marks. Place no judgment on what you do, there is no right or wrong. You may come up with a gorilla-headed flamingo surfing a rainstorm of samurai swords across a sea of platypus’ feet on paper, but in your mind you may have just solved the conundrum to why, say, you are still in a job you should have left months ago.
The shapes, along with your hand movements, stimulate parts of the brain that allow you to make connections between things that you otherwise would likely have never come up with. It helps you tap into your memory, your emotions, your desires, your intellect. Sunni Brown, named one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” and one of the “10 Most Creative People on Twitter” by Fast Company, is the leader of “The Doodle Revolution” the purpose of which is to “disrupt social norms about visual language and visual thinking, and educate people around the world about doodling’s power and potential.” Brown is an ardent champion of the practice of doodling, saying in her TED Talk, “the doodle has never been the nemesis of intellectual thought. In reality, it is one of its greatest allies.” Sunni Brown’s design consultancy, Sunni Brown Ink, has worked with high-profile clients like Linkedin, Zappos, and Dell, amongst others to improve organization and planning by using doodles.
In decision-making, problem-solving and creative thinking we need to engage with at least two of the four learning processes: auditory, visual, reading/writing and kinetic. So in a lecture or in class or on the phone, where information density is high, doodling has the benefit of exploiting all four of the processes. Which is why it is so effective. As a visual person I have never liked using the phone. I feel like I am missing too much information, losing the subtleties and nuances of communication. When I started coaching I thought I would never be able to do it via phone. But I discovered by accident that if I sit with a pen and paper and I draw in response to listening that in fact, it becomes an incredibly powerful interaction. I can hear even more deeply the essence of what my client is saying. I also get them to draw as we talk; simple shapes, mind-maps, grids, nothing tricky, but the act of doodling allows them to explore their thoughts, by placing words into the shapes and finding revealing patterns and constellations in the marks before them, which they are then able to describe to me. So simple but we reach profound solutions very quickly.
As humans we have the urge to make marks. We started daubing on cave walls and some of us still like to spray paint our inner primordial urges onto the sides of buildings. The rest of us can just pick up the nearest pen and the back of an envelope and scribble. Who knows you may even end up shrieking Eureka. You just have to start somewhere.
Need help releasing your inner Ralph Steadman? Get doodling with a Creative Thinking Coach and start solving your problems. Email me Lou@createlab.co.uk
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