For many, the new normal includes a lot of virtual meetings.
We need the connection right now. Even so, screen time can still be draining. And it doesn’t give us the movement or touch we crave.
This summer I facilitated a virtual journaling workshop with young students at my Unitarian church. I told the education director, LeeAnn Williams, about their difficulty staying engaged.
Her simple solution surprised me.
“Just let the students doodle for 2 minutes first. They love it and it helps them focus, even on Zoom,” Williams said.
I’ve always assumed doodling was a minor order bad habit, like putting your feet on the furniture. Teachers used to scold me for doodles on papers, and my own kids got grades docked for sketches in the margins.
Williams leads a meditative doodling class for adults, though. And her approach got me thinking.
I decided to interview her and two other doodling experts. Yes, they exist.
These interviews, supported by scientific research, make a convincing case that doodling isn’t a bad habit.
In fact, it’s a practice for many. And it may help mitigate the tech overload you might be feeling during the pandemic.
To doodle has conventionally meant “to scribble absentmindedly.”
Brown takes issue with this mainstream definition, along with its counterpart “to dawdle, to make meaningless marks.”
Brown’s understanding of doodling — which informs her books “The Doodle Revolution” and “GameStorming” as well as her Ted talk — is “to make spontaneous marks with your mind and body to help yourself think.”
Brown told me that doodling is an underappreciated, underused learning tool.
“Everyone is encouraged to write words and speak,” Brown says, “whether or not one wants to be a writer or an orator. Why isn’t the same true with visual language?”
Brown uses “infodoodles” to explore, express, and teach new ideas. She shares these creative meanderings on her Flickr page.
Although they each have slightly different spins on what it means to doodle, Williams, Trussell and Brown agree on one main point: Making your mark via doodling is meaningful.
Williams both practices and guides others in what she calls “contemplative, purposeful pen strokes that lead you into a reflective, quiet space.”
She refers to this as “meditative doodling.” For some, this technique is even a spiritual practice.
Often, Williams asks workshop participants to put an image, person, or concept that they’d like to “hold in their heart” in the center of their page. Participants make pen strokes like clouds, curlicues, or bubbles around the center.
“It’s a way of creating time and space that is wordless and restful,” says Williams.
She also suggests that those interested in exploring mindful doodling on their own might try The Zentangle Method.
Created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, it’s a simple way to relax by drawing beautiful, structured patterns. Doodlers may find the ready-made patterns relaxing and focusing, particularly when working or learning remotely already feels too unstructured.
There are plenty of other mindful doodling exercises online, too. Here’s one suggested by an art coach.
Doodling as daydreaming
Trussell’s definition of doodling is more old-school than Williams or Brown’s, in that she doesn’t see doodling as intentional.
“It’s like proactive daydreaming,” she told me, “something we often do on autopilot, either when we are concentrating on something else, or when we’re bored, tuned out, and our mind is wandering.”
Nevertheless, Trussell finds the subconscious element of doodling to be therapeutic and significant.
“A true doodle is drawn in one continuous line, where the pen is never lifted from the page,” says Trussell. “Typically, shapes are the most popular form of doodle and imbued with symbolism. Shapes relate to people’s state of mind, life outlook, needs, motivations, responses and attitudes.”
Science supports the idea that doodling enhances creativity, spirituality, and problem solving.
Aside from simply being a fun way to get through a long meeting, doodling has a slew of benefits.
Coping with a pandemic is stressful — even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says so. Meanwhile, scientists, artists, and teachers agree that doodling soothes.
One 2016 study of 39 university students, staff, and faculty found that after making art, 75 percent of participants had lower levels of cortisol (stress hormones) in their saliva. It didn’t matter whether the art was representational or “mere” scribbling.
Some participants were artists, others not. Art making was an equal opportunity de-stressor.
These days, people are spending more time indoors, away from social support groups and community. This means potentially addictive behaviors like binge-watching and device-using are on the rise.
Of course, there’s no easy solution to these habits. Finding simple sources of pleasure can help.
Doodling might be one such pleasure.
In 2017, researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia examined brain activation measured by infrared light in participants during three forms of creative self-expression:
- free drawing
All three art-making activities, particularly doodling, activated the reward pathways in the brain.
The researchers concluded that “art making could be a way to regulate mood [and] addictive behaviors.”
According to a much-cited 2009 study by Jackie Andrade, “participants who performed a shape-shading task, intended as an analogue of naturalistic doodling, concentrated better on a mock telephone message than participants who listened to the message with no concurrent task.”
Andrade is a professor of psychology and associate head of the School for Research in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, England.
She theorized that doodling improved concentration by keeping participants awake and somewhat alert during boring activities, while circumventing the total distraction of daydreaming.
On a smaller scale, University of British Columbia medical student Michiko Maruyama created a case study in 2012 to suggest that doodling in response to lectures aids recall and understanding.
Creativity and authenticity
Trussell says that doodling offers an accessible mode of self-expression to all, no matter their background or gender.
“When you doodle,” Trussell says, “there’s a complex interaction going on between the eye, the brain, the central nervous system, and the hand…. In other words, doodling and handwriting reflects brain activity. So what the writer is unconsciously doing is expressing their whole unique psychological profile, in symbols, on paper.”
Trussell emphasizes that it’s not what we doodle — it’s how we do it.
Where the doodle is drawn, how large, and the amount of pressure all say something about the doodler’s state of mind.
Trussell believes doodling “potentially offers valuable insights into the personality and mood of the doodler.”
The self-expression offered by doodling may be a welcome break from the performative, on-stage aspect of Zoom meetings.
Brown explains how a telecommunications company she worked with learned to think less stereotypically with doodling.
The company originally had no process in place for visual thinking. After some exercises in guided doodling, they were able to come up with five new inventions for patentable technology. Previously they’d had none.
Brown told me that because doodling is a visual, written, kinesthetic, and emotional experience, it can deepen learning and invention in a way that working in just one modality cannot.
Brown says that for herself and her clients, this multimodal, tactile experience is an antidote for too much time online.
Doodling can distract
A 2017 study concluded that doodling only improves recall if it is non-representational, structured or patterned, and combined with note taking.
If the student or meeting participant needs to take in visuals, for instance graphs and charts, unstructured doodling will weaken their recall.
There’s a time and a place
Mindful doodling can’t be done simultaneously while participating in a meeting discussion or class, Williams notes.
Rather, it’s a meditation that might help in preparing for or reflecting on what’s learned.
When I let students doodle prior to my Zoom workshop, they settled down and opened up.
A refrain from a Police song comes to mind: “When the world is running down, we make the best of what’s still around.”
In these dog days of the pandemic, doodling can be one of those things. Whether it involves meandering squiggles on a napkin or the mindful linking of shapes, it can bring us down to earth when things are feeling up in the air.
Karen Sosnoski’s fiction and nonfiction, most recently in The Temper, explores what happens when people face their limitations through disability, illness, addiction, sports, or other intense encounters, such as art. Her work has appeared in diverse publications including Romper, Culture Trip, The Sunlight Press, Argot Magazine, LA Times, Poets and Writers, Word Riot, Grappling, Bitch, Radioactive Moat, and PsychologyToday.com, and on Studio 360 and This American Life. Berkeley Media distributes her documentary film, “Wedding Advice: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace.”