The humble doodle: The home of focus, learning and creative thought

Like many a sticky fingered whelp, one of the first things I reached for as a toddler was a pencil. For many children, drawing is a very personal form of communication and self-expression that words cannot match. (Scrambled egg flung at the wall, maybe, but not words).

If you try to describe it, it's possible that no one will understand the genius of your automatic dog-walker, consisting of levers, pulleys and a Lazy Susan. But, as Edward De Bono demonstrated in his fascinating book, The Dog Exercising Machine, if you draw it, its genius is instantly recognisable.

When our soft little brains are still soaking up the new world around us - car, tree, dog, frightening shadow, petit filous – we're plucked from the freedom of the living room floor and thrust into the education system, as four-year-olds the country over discovered last week. Over a relatively short period of time, our crayons and colouring pencils are replaced with pens.

And as this recent article in The Atlantic notes, for most of us, the question isn't "when did you start drawing?" but "when did you stop?". But, all too soon, the inviting canvas of plain paper is replaced with lined, or even worse, GRAPH paper. The lines tell us to contain our thoughts; to do our thinking within these barriers; to keep it strictly relevant; to express it with letters and numbers that fit neatly in the spaces provided. Meanwhile, drawing is confined to specific periods of time, and heaven help you if you are caught doing it when you are supposed to be working.

“Doodling” is a word we have come to associate with idleness. If you’re doodling, you are not listening. You are focused on drawing, and your drawing has no greater purpose than entertaining you. But contrary to its poor reputation in the classroom, drawing has recently been proven to help us learn, and in fact focus our thoughts?

According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers find it easier to recall dull information (even 29 percent more) than non-doodlers, because the latter are more likely to daydream. Doodling can keep the mind focused on one visual activity (doodling) and one aural one (listening), delaying the onset of mind-numbing, ear-blocking, thought-stifling boredom. 

And that's the theory behind books like The Human Body Colouring Book (Dorling Kindersley), which, its creator say, offers "a tried and tested, interactive method of learning" by better enabling students to commit the complex parts and processes of the body to memory, while colouring them in. Makes sense to us - maybe this is our chance to master the basics of biology that passed us by at school!

One of my tutors at University insisted that playing with Lego helped her to concentrate - though I've gotta say that as she beavered away at her miniature Lego Taj Mahal, she didn't exactly boost my confidence in the complicated third year project I was attempting to explain. I guess I know how my Maths teacher must have felt when he caught me focusing on Pythagorus' Theorem through the medium of comic strip heroines painstakingly rendered in biro. (Honest, Sir.) 

But, what is perhaps even more useful about the art of doodling, is its purpose as a medium for the unconscious expression of ideas. Whatever random line or shape or squiggle comes out of your pen has fallen directly out of your head with no argument or logic behind it. Nothing is too silly, too meaningless, too fanciful, too abstract, too impossible to be doodled, and as a result, a doodle can be the space in which the spark of a really good idea is born. It's what we preach in The Academy and, these days, it's what I practice, too. 

Now, when I start any project - at work or at home - there is a period in which I produce ideas; hundreds of little unresolved fragments made of things I’ve seen, heard and made before. There's such satisfaction in putting pen to paper and shedding those ideas; only when they’re out of your head can you begin to play with them, sculpt them into something else.

That goes for artists and non-artists, alike. As Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolutionsays: 'The perceived skill has absolutely nothing to do with he quality of the learning experience for the doodler." 

If a doodle is a little like a spa treatment for the mind - leaving it relaxed and receptive to new information, then perhaps visual note-taking, sketch-notes, graphic facilitation or scribing are more like a really effective workout; an exercise in making the information you receive easy to understand. 

When you take visual notes, you listen, digest, and reproduce the information in the form of descriptive drawings that represent what you have heard. They force you to understand what you have been listening to, and if you do forget, they serve as a visual aid to help you to remember.

I was still at University when I started working for Scriberia, and immediately, I noticed how what I learned here transformed the way I thought and studied. I realised that my love of drawing could - and should - be put to use, as an aide to learning and thinking. Why had I spent so many years making reams of written notes in lectures, when instead I could have been letting pens run wild with the information I was trying to absorb?

I started experimenting  with sketch-noting lectures and project meetings. I went from being a slack-jawed, barely conscious audience-member, to being a fully "present" note-taking machine. Sharing those visual notes with my peers allowed them to benefit from the way I had learned. Brownie points a plenty and I guess I found my calling, too.

So, today I see drawing not just as a thing I've always loved to do, but as a tool for so much more; communicating, designing, exploring, explaining and thinking. And when you use it to discover and learn, all you are really doing is going back to when you were first gripping a crayon in your fat little fist, and absorbing the world around you by recreating it on paper.