Can a doodle help the noodle?

Friday February 27 2009

“Doodling aids memory” The Sun has reported. The newspaper said that “boffins” from the University of Plymouth have reportedly found that “doodling actually helps to keep your mind focused”. The study involved 40 volunteers listening to a boring telephone message, during which half were asked to doodle and the other half asked just to listen. The volunteers were then asked to remember names and places mentioned in the message. The doodlers could remember 29% more information than the non-doodlers. The researcher suggested that this may be because doodling stops the mind from wandering.

Overall, this relatively small study suggests that doodling while listening is not necessarily a hindrance to remembering information heard. However, whether doodling can improve memory in real life remains to be seen.

Where did the story come from?

Dr Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth carried out this research. No sources of funding were reported for the study. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This was a randomised controlled trial that looked at how doodling while listening to information affected memory of what was heard. The researcher wanted to find out whether doodling improves or hinders attention to a task.

The researcher enrolled 40 volunteers (35 females, five males) aged 18 to 55 years. They were recruited immediately after having finished another unrelated experiment for another researcher. This was done so that they would already be thinking about going home, and therefore it would enhance the boredom of the task.

They were told that they would listen to a recorded message, and that they should pretend that the speaker was a friend inviting them to a party. They were told that the message was dull, and that they did not need to remember it. They were asked simply to write down the names of the people who could attend the party, but ignore those who could not attend, and not to write anything else. The message lasted two and a half minutes and included the names of eight people who could attend, and three people and a cat that could not attend. It also mentioned the names of eight cities, such as London and Penzance.

The researcher randomly assigned half the volunteers to a doodling group and half to a non-doodling group. People in the doodling group were given paper with rows of squares and circles on that they were asked to shade in as they listened to the message to “relieve the boredom”. They were told not to worry about the speed or neatness of their shading. Shading was used rather than “freestyle” doodling as the researcher did not want the participants to be inhibited by worrying about the content or quality of their doodles. People in the non-doodling group were just given the paper for writing down the names as instructed.

After the participants listened to the message and wrote down the names, they gave the papers to the researcher who engaged them in conversation for a minute. At this time, the researcher apologised for misleading them about the nature of the experiment. They were then asked to recall the names of party attendees and of the places mentioned in the message. Half of the participants were asked to recall names first and then places, and the other half were asked to recall details in the other order (places first then names). The participants were also asked if they had earlier suspected they had been involved in a memory test.

What were the results of the study?

Three doodlers and four controls had suspected a memory test when asked at the end of the test, but none said that they actively tried to remember the information. None of the participants in the non-doodling group doodled while listening to the message. One person instructed to doodle did not doodle and was replaced.

One person in the doodling group listed one incorrect name, while five people in the non-doodling group listed an incorrect name. After subtracting the number of incorrect names from the correct names for each participant, the doodlers got an average of 7.7 and the non-doodlers an average of 6.9. This difference was statistically significant.

During the recall part of the test, the doodlers also performed significantly better, remembering on average 7.5 pieces of information (names and places) compared with an average of 5.8 in the non-doodling group. Names were remembered better than places, and doodlers remembered both of these types of information better than non-doodlers. These results were not affected by removing those people who suspected a memory test. The difference between the groups in the number of names remembered correctly was no longer significant if the results were adjusted for the number of names correctly written down while listening.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researcher concludes that doodling aids concentration.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

There are a number of limitations to the study:

  • Assigning people into groups at random aims to generate groups that are as similar as possible. However, when the number of people being randomised is small, such as in this study, even randomisation may not be able to generate completely balanced groups. In addition, the replacement of one of the doodling group may also have affected the balance between the groups. If the groups were not well balanced, confounding may have affected the results, and some difference between the groups other than that being analysed may have been responsible for the outcome.
  • The experimental conditions may not replicate what happens when people doodle “naturally” while listening to real life conversations.
  • The study did not assess whether doodling or not affected whether people daydreamed while listening, therefore it is not possible to say as yet whether doodling affects concentration by stopping daydreaming.

In conclusion, this study suggests that doodling while listening is not necessarily a hindrance to remembering information that has been heard. Whether doodling can improve memory in real life situations remains to be seen.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices