Doodling: Listening with a Pencil

If you’ve been in a meeting with me then you’ve seen me doodling. Maybe you shrugged it off as something “designers do.” But make no mistake: I’m not checked out. I am, in fact, listening and engaged. Because for me, doodling is paying attention. It helps me concentrate and retain information.

I’ve been doodling all my life—in class lectures, phone calls, and staff meetings. Somehow taking notes was never enough. Neither was just passively sitting and listening. Turns out, when I need to pay attention, I need to draw.

Doodling ≠ dawdling

Many years ago, I  worked in an office where I was reprimanded for doodling during meetings. (I also got in trouble for laughing too loudly, but I digress.) Turns out, my doodling was interpreted as “rude” and “disrespectful.” And honestly, at the time, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Because for me, scribbling away on paper when I’m concentrating isn’t intentional. Rather, it’s my way of active listening—as if drawing were an extension of the conversation.

But after getting called out, in subsequent meetings I sat quietly with my hands in my lap and tried to pay attention. And the thing is—as far as everyone at the table was concerned, I was engaged. I was, after all, looking directly at the speaker. But looking engaged is not the same thing as being engaged. In fact, I had so much trouble directing my attention and keeping my focus that I actually taught myself to write backwards (true story!) during meetings so that I could better concentrate. And it worked: I got to have my visual aid and everyone else got to think I was taking notes—albeit in the wrong direction (but luckily, nobody ever said anything).

Then I did some research and discovered I wasn’t alone. Doodling, as it turns out, is a common form of thinking and listening for many people—especially creatives like me.

Detail, doodle by Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia (1795).

Detail, doodle by Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia (1795). Discover more fun and historic doodles in the book Scrawl: An A to Z of Famous Doodles.

Doodling as a superpower

Doodling often gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to perceptions around productivity. But recent studies in neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that doodling is, in fact, productive. It can free up short- and long-term memory, stimulate creativity, and reduce stress.

3 benefits of doodling

  1. Brain power
    Doodling is an effective memory tool and study aid. In the much-cited memory studies of psychologist Jackie Andrade, doodling proved to assist in short-term memory and cognitive performance. “...Doodling simply helps to establish arousal at an optimal level.” Further cognitive studies showed doodling or scribbling lights up “default networks” in the brain that would normally be dormant. Doodling keeps the brain active, as was evidenced in a 2019 study in which doodlers presented a 29% better recall rate than participants who did not.
  2. Creative insight
    Expanding on the idea of how doodling stimulates the brain is Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution and instructor of Applied Visual Thinking. Brown says doodling “lights up different networks in the brain,” thus expanding the mind and ability to think. This leads to more precise and creative problem solving. Brown continues: “I can’t tell you how important it is to draw. ...When the mind starts to engage with visual language, you get neurological access that you don’t have when you’re in a linguistic mode.”
  3. Mindfulness
    Doodling can also alleviate impatience, boredom, and indecision. In her TED Talk Doodlers Unite, Brown explains how doodling helps us stay in the moment. “(Doodling) is not a distraction, but a form of meditation or mindfulness.” In other words, it heightens awareness and observation. Moreover, the “thinking benefits” of doodling may actually “relieve psychological stress,” making it easier to relax, focus, and concentrate. In fact, a 2016 study showed that art or the mere act of scribbling lowered cortisol levels in 75% of participants.

So hey, let’s stop giving doodlers a bad name! Don’t be offended the next time you see someone scribbling away during a meeting. They’re just listening with a pencil—which, by the way, is definitely not the same thing as scrolling Twitter on an iphone when I just got home and am talking about my day (no matter what my husband says).

Learn more about the mental health benefits of doodling or how doodling can boost memory and creativity.