The Drawing Effect: How Doodling Can Improve Your Thinking and Memory

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It is commonly said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” – and this might be more true than we realize, especially when it comes to our psychology.

According to a new study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, drawing is an effective way of improving our thinking and memory above simply writing or taking notes.

hands drawing on a notebook

The study found that drawing helped people remember lists of words (like “truck” or” pear”), as well as textbook definitions of scientific topics like (“isotope” and “spore”), better than when people just wrote down these words or definitions. This effect was shown to be particularly strong in those with dementia and memory problems.

Psychologists theorize that drawing or doodling can help boost our memories by engaging more of the visual and motor parts of our brains, which helps create a richer context and experience to help us absorb these concepts and retain them better.

In another study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers did 7 different “free recall” experiments, where participants were asked to try to remember 30 different words.

One group was asked to spend 40 seconds on each word writing it out over and over again (“rote learning”), while another group was given the same amount of time to doodle an image representing each word. They were then asked to do a completely irrelevant task, and afterwards were asked to recall as many of the words as possible from the previous study.

Again researchers discovered that individuals who were asked to draw the words remembered twice as many as those who were asked to simply write them out repetitively.

Best of all, the skill-level of each drawing had little impact on how well individuals memorized the words. Instead, it seems even people who aren’t good at drawing at all can receive benefits in learning and memory from drawing more.

These findings have many practical implications for how we can use drawing to improve our lives.

The Benefits of Drawing and Doodling More

  • Taking notes and studying – One great application of drawing is to doodle more when you’re taking notes in class or during a business meeting. This will help you engage with the material more and absorb it better in the moment. It’ll also help when you go back to your notes to study for an exam or prepare for the next business meeting.
  • Making “to do” lists – Another benefit to drawing is to integrate it into your list-making, whether it’s a shopping list, grocery list, or a “to do” list for home or work. This will improve the power of your checklists, by making it easier for you to scan the list and retain all of the items on it. It’ll also better prepare you to tackle these tasks later in the day. (For example, when my friend had me watch his dogs for the week he drew little pictures next to each item, which helped out a lot).
  • Reflecting in new ways – While meditation and writing can be great tools for becoming more aware of your inner thoughts and feelings, drawing visual representations of your thoughts and emotions can also be a fantastic method for becoming more attuned to your inner world and expressing it. Similar to art therapy, taking a few minutes to draw how you feel can be a great way to express and release negative emotions by making them more tangible and changeable.
browsing through the drawings of a notebook
  • Brainstorming and creativity – One interesting lesson I learned in the book Creative Confidence is how important visuals can be when trying to solve problems or come up with creative solutions. Sometimes we need to draw out a problem (such as creating a flow chart, diagram, or illustration) to help us think in new ways and approach a problem from a completely different perspective rather than just trying to solve a problem by thinking about it inside our heads.
  • Relaxation and stress relief – Another obvious benefit to drawing and doodling is that it just feels good to be creative and take your mind off of things for a little while. This is probably why “adult coloring books” have also become a popular way to relieve stress and anxiety. Simply putting on some good music and taking 30 minutes to just doodle whatever you want can be a great way to refresh your mind, escape life’s everyday problems, and just relax more.

These are just a few great ways that drawing can benefit our everyday lives.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to be skilled at all to actually reap these benefits, even just simple stick figures and “kindergarten drawing” are all it takes to begin engaging your mind more at a visual level.

What are some ways you can begin drawing more to benefit your life? Get a sketch pad today and start doodling!


This article was originally posted on The Emotion Machine by Steve Handel.

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Steve Handel
Steven Handel is a published author, motivation coach, and creator at The Emotion Machine, a website dedicated to all aspects of psychology and self improvement in the 21st century.