By Samantha Wilson, English Faculty
I’ve been a doodler as long as I can remember, and for just as long, I’ve been accused of not paying attention. I even wrote a piece about it for my elementary school newsletter entitled “It’s OK to Doodle” or something to that effect. Basically I’ve been defending doodling and explaining that I AM listening and paying attention for a long time now. I’ve been claiming for decades that this type of multitasking is not an indication that the mind has wandered off topic, and there is finally strong evidence to support my position.
A 2010 study by Jackie Andrade entitled “What does doodling do?” published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology sought to discover whether doodling was in fact a distraction to attention or an attention enhancer. Participants were asked to listen to a “monotonous” phone message that included information and names of several people who were coming to a party. One group listened only and the other group was told to shade in shapes while listening. The group that was doodling recalled 29% more information from the message than those not doodling. Moreover, researcher Geoffrey Schott finds in his article “Doodling and the default network of the brain” that “For some doodlers… doodling may be crucial for creativity, whereas for those at the other end of the spectrum, doodling seems to be relaxing or simply entertaining” (Schott, 2011). Finally, I have found my vindication. For me, doodling actually enhances my ability to concentrate on what is happening around me if I am presented with a listening task. Keeping my hands busy removes the “impatience, boredom, and indecision” from the situation, and frees up working memory.
So what does this mean for our students who are asked to listen for hours at a time? In the article “The Effects of Added Physical Activity on Performance during a Listening Comprehension Task for Students with and without Attention Problems” (2012) by Suneeta Kercood and Devender Banda, researchers described what is known as “The Optimal Stimulation Theory,” which posits that each individual has an ideal “stimulatory state” during which she or he demonstrates “improved task performance and reduced disruptive behaviors.” For people with ADHD, this balance is reached through more activities, physical and otherwise, which are often labeled as distracting behaviors. However, people without attention problems also engage in this type of activity in the form of tapping fingers or feet, twirling pens, shifting position, playing with an object, or doodling. These behaviors can also be stress reducing and even promote concentration and creativity (Schott, 2011). Thus each of us is simply trying to get our brains to the optimal level of stimulation in order to produce the most attention to the task at hand. By allowing for motion, color, or novelty in classroom or homework tasks, students with attention problems will have a better chance of reaching this optimal state (Kercood and Banda, 2012).
Certainly an overload of stimulation or multitasking is bad (Lee, Lin, and Robertson, 2012), and practices such as texting and driving or talking on the phone and driving are now outlawed in 43 and 12 states respectively according to a government website. Andrew Watson of “Translate the Brain” gave an all school lecture this fall about the academic dangers of trying to do too many things at once, which can cause your working memory to fill up and distract you from the primary focus (Lee, Lin, and Robertson, 2012). Many recent studies look at computer use in the classroom. In “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments” (2003), researchers Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay find that students who have open laptops, whether used for social purposes or to look up material related to the lecture, “suffered decrements on traditional measures of memory for lecture content” (Hembrooke and Gay, 2003). When the cognitive load is too high, the brain’s computational capacities are compromised. Basically, when your attention is pulled in multiple directions, you can’t think straight (Rosen, 2008). However, it all depends on what the other tasks are.
So the next time you have a student in class who seems unable to sit still, give her or him a different option to achieve that needed stimulation by providing something to manipulate or physically engage with other than poking the closest classmate.
I will always be a doodler, and the next time you are sitting near me in a meeting and see my pen hit paper, don’t automatically assume I’ve checked out of the conversation. Quite the opposite is true, in fact.
Sam Wilson is in her fourth year teaching English, where she also coaches lacrosse and cross-country, lives in Thayer House, and co-heads Burnett House. Sam hosts the monthly meetings of the Southborough Society (women’s affinity group) and Faculty Discussion Evenings.
Andrade, Jackie. (January 2010). What does doodling do?. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 24(1), 100–106.
Hembrooke, Helene and Geri Gay. (Fall 2003). The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 15(1), 46-64.
Kercood, Suneeta and Banda, Devender R. (April 2012). The Effects of Added Physical Activity on Performance during a Listening Comprehension Task for Students with and without Attention Problems. International Journal of Applied Educational Studies. 13(1), 19-32.
Lee, Jennifer, Lin Lin and Tip Roberston. (2012). The impact of media multitasking on learning. Learning, Media and Technology. 37(1)
Rosen, Christine. (Spring 2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis. 20, 105-110.
Schott, G.D. (2011). Doodling and the default network of the brain. The Lancet. 378(9797), 1133–1134.