• Users Online: 761
  • Home
  • Print this page
  • Email this page
Home Current issue Ahead of print Search About us Editorial board Archives Submit article Instructions Subscribe Contacts Login 

 Table of Contents  
Year : 2016  |  Volume : 21  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 16-19

Doodling: The artistry of the roving metaphysical mind

Department of Physiology, Gian Sagar Medical College, Ramnagar, Rajpura, Punjab, India

Date of Web Publication10-May-2016

Correspondence Address:
Sharat Gupta
H. No. 849, SST Nagar, Rajpura Road, Patiala - 147 001, Punjab
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0971-8990.182097

Rights and Permissions

A doodle is a simple drawing that is usually made to pass the time during a boring meeting, classroom lecture, or a prolonged telephonic conversation. Almost everyone has seen a doodle somewhere and many people have made such drawings. Doodling may not be of much interest to the general public as it is perceived to be a sign of disinterest, inattentiveness, or reverie. However, the act of doodling is of enduring interest to scientists as they believe that doodling research might actually reveal significant insights about the functioning of the subconscious mind. The widely held misconception about doodling as being just a way to ease one's boredom is all set to change since the findings of some recent researchers have shown that doodling might actually aid one's memory and recall performance. We hope that this review will instigate further research into this hitherto uncharted domain so that the real connotation of this seemingly mundane act can be decisively established.

Keywords: Absent-mindedness, attention, boredom, cognition, doodle, doodling, memory

How to cite this article:
Gupta S. Doodling: The artistry of the roving metaphysical mind. J Mental Health Hum Behav 2016;21:16-9

How to cite this URL:
Gupta S. Doodling: The artistry of the roving metaphysical mind. J Mental Health Hum Behav [serial online] 2016 [cited 2022 Jun 25];21:16-9. Available from: https://www.jmhhb.org/text.asp?2016/21/1/16/182097

  Introduction Top

A doodle is an aimless scribble or a drawing that is usually done when the person's primary attention is otherwise occupied by some other task.[1] Archetypical examples of doodling are commonly seen on school and college desks, textbooks, notebooks, etc. This phenomenon is quite commonly observed in students who are found daydreaming in class or who find their lectures boring. However, people attending business meetings and those engaged in prolonged telephonic conversations are also known to indulge in doodling.[2]

Almost all have seen a doodle somewhere and most of us have doodled at some point of time. Doodling is unique since it is spontaneous and no two doodlers seem to copy each other. Doodles are often drawn absent-mindedly and are usually unrelated to the primary task.[3] They can range from a simple drawing or a quote to a highly intricate design, figure, or a pattern [Figure 1]. However, the most popular doodles have been found to be caricatures of teachers or famous TV/film personalities, logos of popular brands, geometric shapes, ingenious fictional characters, animals, etc.[4]
Figure 1: Various kinds of doodles

Click here to view

Boredom is a commonly encountered experience and daydreaming is an associated response.[5] It has been observed that people often interpret doodling as a way of subverting their frustration and boredom.[6] It is currently being debated whether doodling impairs performance by creating a distraction from current task or whether it actually boosts performance by reducing daydreaming and aiding concentration.[7]

One of the earliest research on doodling was done way back in 1938 by Maclay et al. who assessed 9000 doodles sent by the public in response to a competition organized by the Evening Standard newspaper. The authors found that doodles were usually produced during states of boredom, idleness, or affective tension (due to indecision, impatience, anxiety, etc.). However, doodles produced in certain other scenarios (e.g., while solving mathematical problems, or generating new works of literature, music, or design), resulted in a higher creativity level of those individuals. Thus, it was proposed that whereas for some people doodling might be crucial for creativity, for others it may be just an act which evoked a feeling of amusement or repose.[8]

Even though doodling is a commonly witnessed phenomenon, yet remarkably little research has been carried out to decipher the true physiological significance of this seemingly mundane act. We hope that this review would prove to be helpful in not only updating the knowledge of fellow researchers but would also instigate further research in this field.

  Neurological Basis of Doodling Top

Since the past three decades, some evidence has accumulated that entails the involvement of an anatomically distinct neuronal network which is active during the act of doodling. This network includes the medial temporal lobe, medial prefrontal lobe, and posterior cingulated cortex and is thus thought to be similar to that responsible for the short-term memory (or working memory) of the brain.[9]

Several neuroimaging studies have revealed the presence of a baseline default cortical activity in the brain, especially in the absence of any externally directed thought. This baseline cortical activity is supported by the activity in the above neuronal pool.[10] A simultaneous reduction in the activity of another neuronal network, i.e., the “attention system” (which is activated during goal directed thought), is also seen. In wake of the above revelations, it has been argued that doodling research could possibly provide an alternate way to probe the default network of the brain and the way it functions.[11]

  Doodling and Memory Top

While doodling has been traditionally been associated with inattentiveness toward the ongoing task (e.g., a classroom lecture), some studies have shown that doodling actually improves memory recall.[12] A recent study investigated the act of doodling in a group of 34 undergraduate university students. This study promulgated the beneficial effect of doodling on improving one's attention toward an ongoing task. This effect was explained to be due to the fact that doodling addressed a student's need to be active, when they are forced to remain inactive in a circumscribed space, such as a classroom. Thus, doodling served as a vent to “let-out” the mental stress that students felt, thereby improving their focus on the ongoing lecture.[13]

In a study carried out by Jackie Andrade, forty participants listened to a rather boring, prerecorded conversation pertaining to the names of the people, who were supposed to be coming to a party, along with the names of some random places. The participants were randomly divided into two equal groups. One group was encouraged to doodle on a piece of paper while listening to the audio tape, while the other group did not doodle at all. To standardize the doodling process and to make it a more “mindless act,” the doodlers were asked to shade squares and circles which were printed on a paper. After the tape finished, all the participants took a surprise quiz in which they were asked to recall the names of as many party goers and places as they could. Unexpectedly, the doodling group recalled 29% more information as compared to nondoodlers. Based on the intriguing findings of his work, Andrade postulated that doodling might have aided concentration by maintaining optimum levels of autonomic arousal. To put it a simple way, doodling is a simple task that utilizes very few executive resources of the brain thereby stabilizing arousal to a level that is sufficient enough to prevent daydreaming without affecting attention and processing of information related to the main task, hence resulting in a better performance on the latter.[14]

Recently, another separate study was conducted by Elaine Chan in which fourteen participants were randomly assigned to either “doodling” or “nondoodling” conditions. Both the groups observed a power-point slideshow consisting of two separate sets of 20 images. They were then asked to recall not only the images they had seen but also to identify some common images in both the presentations. It was observed that doodling had a negative effect on visual recall performance of the participants since the mean number of images recalled by doodlers (15.86 ± 1.07) was significantly lower than that of nondoodlers (19.29 ± 1.11).[15]

The contradiction between the results of Jackie Andrade and Elaine Chan was proposed to be due to the fact that in latter's study, both the doodling act and the main cognitive task (i.e., viewing images) were competing for the same cognitive resources (i.e., the neurons of the visual processing pathway), which resulted in visual multitasking, consequently dividing the attention of the doodlers between the two processes. The doodlers might have been distracted repeatedly from the slideshow, thus viewing the images for a shorter duration, thereby explaining their poor recall performance. However, in Andrade's study, since the main cognitive task involved auditory modality (listening), thus there was no visual distraction while doodling, which resulted in the better performance of doodling group.

Elaine Chan admitted some potential limitations in his study. First, the images shown were not “neutral” and thus could have generated some kind of emotion or past memory in the viewer, thereby increasing chances of recall. Another limitation might have been arisen due to the fact that the participants were told prior to the visual task that they would be asked to recall the images. As a result, they had some motivation to focus on the images, thereby eschewing from daydreaming.

Some common limitations in both these studies were that they involved a small no. of participants and also in both of these studies the participants were not allowed to doodle as per their own innate instincts. This was done to ensure standardization of the doodling process and to alleviate any kind of suspicion from the participants mind that their doodles might be scrutinized for their content. However, this might have had some implication on the findings as doodling is typically done at one's own discretion and whims.

Nevertheless, from the above studies, it could be generalized that activities which compete for the same modality impair information processing and hence memory, therefore multitasking in such activities is unadvisable. However, multitasking may offer some benefit if the two activities involve different modalities. This is because the secondary task (e.g., doodling) serves to reduce the wandering of the mind away from the primary task, by not consuming the resources required for the latter.[16]

  Doodling and Psychotherapy Top

Unlike the medium of language, art allows an entire thought to be conveyed in the form of a single image rather than making use of many words and sentences. Doodling allows the subconscious mind to express itself in pictorial form.[17] Spontaneously made drawings such as doodles are studied by art therapists, who then use it in adjunct to psychotherapy to delve deep within their client's minds, thereby revealing their innermost desires, phobias, and beliefs.[18] This has been found to be helpful not only in alleviation of anxiety and various other functional disorders, but also in expression of thoughts and feelings in a much better and confident way.[19] Some researchers have even put forward a proposal that doodles are akin to dreams in several ways. For example, just like the existence of diverse dream scenarios, doodles are also of myriad variety. Furthermore, both doodles and dreams are thought to have some hidden meaning, which, if investigated properly, can reveal what is going on in the subconscious mind.[20]

  Doodling and Ingenuity Top

While neuroscientists are busy probing the beneficial effects that doodling might have on memory, there are some psychologists who believe that doodling might actually be helpful in gauging an individual's creative capabilities.[21] The plausible support for this notion stems from the fact that some famous historical personalities, who are known for their scientific and artistic prowess, were prolific doodlers.[22] One of the greatest known doodlers in history is Leonardo da Vinci, who despite being not proficient in Greek or Latin, conceptualized his ideas in the form of crude drawings. These drawings were considered far ahead of their times and paved way for many contemporary inventions such as the helicopter, tank, scuba gear, parachute, etc. Another famous doodler was Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, whose world famous representation of prime numbers, also known as the Ulam spiral, was actually discovered accidently while he was doodling during a conference. Many literary masterpieces of John Keats, a renowned poet and physician, were often a spin-off of the numerous doodles that he used to scribble in the margins of his medical notes.[23]

  Doodling as an Aid to Revolutionize Conventional Medical Education Top

Whenever we think of a medical student learning something, we often associate him/her to be listening a didactic lecture or jotting down piles of notes. Most of the time the students often have difficulty in recalling what they have learned just a few moments ago during the lecture.[24] We believe that encouraging these students to use medical doodles as memory aid would certainly help them in not only grasping the subject but also make learning more interesting. An example that lends credibility to this thought is the recent case report of Michiko Maruyama, a sophomore medical student in the University of British Columnia, who regularly incorporates medical art forms into her daily learning routine. Using this technique she has been able to help many fellow students in memorizing many important medical concepts.[25]

  Conclusion Top

Doodling may well have the dubious distinction of being the most widely known yet little understood act, since the exact physiological significance of this intriguing human act continues to elude the scientists until date. This is mainly attributed to a dearth of studies in this field. Doodling is a fascinating form of visual art and considering it as an aimless and wasteful scribble is totally unjustified. A meticulous research in this direction would not only decode the mystery behind this age old conundrum but also prove immensely helpful in improving our understanding of the human demeanor, in general, and the functioning of the wandering mind, in particular.


The authors would like to thank Prof. Jackie Andrade and Prof Elaine Chan as it was their research works that inspired us to write this article.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

de Guzman A, Pablo LA, Prieto RJ, Purificacion VN, Que JJ, Quia P. Understanding the persona of clinical instructors: The use of students' doodles in nursing research. Nurse Educ Today 2008;28:48-54.  Back to cited text no. 1
Adler A. On doodlings: The craving for symmetry. Individ Psychol 1988;44:441-3.  Back to cited text no. 2
Schott GD. Doodling and the default network of the brain. Lancet 2011 24;378:1133-4.  Back to cited text no. 3
Balter M. Oldest art: From a modern human's brow – Or doodling? Science 2002;295:247-9.  Back to cited text no. 4
Harris MB. Correlates and characteristics of boredom proneness and boredom. J Appl Social Psychol 2000;30:576-98.  Back to cited text no. 5
Manaster GJ. On doodling and mental meanderings. Individ Psychol 1988;44:444-6.  Back to cited text no. 6
Smallwood J, Fishman DJ, Schooler JW. Counting the cost of an absent mind: Mind wandering as an underrecognized influence on educational performance. Psychon Bull Rev 2007;14:230-6.  Back to cited text no. 7
Maclay WS, Guttmann E, Mayer-Gross W. Spontaneous drawings as an approach to some problems of psychopathology: (Section of psychiatry). Proc R Soc Med 1938;31:1337-50.  Back to cited text no. 8
Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, Schacter DL. The brain's default network: Anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2008;1124:1-38.  Back to cited text no. 9
Smallwood J, Schooler JW. The restless mind. Psychol Bull 2006;132:946-58.  Back to cited text no. 10
Mason MF, Norton MI, Van Horn JD, Wegner DM, Grafton ST, Macrae CN. Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science 2007;315:393-5.  Back to cited text no. 11
Wilson K, Korn JH. Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes. Teach Psychol 2007;34:85-9.  Back to cited text no. 12
Aellig A, Cassady S, Francis C, Toops D. Do attention span and doodling relate to ability to learn content from an educational video? Epistimi 2009;4:21-4.  Back to cited text no. 13
Andrade J. What does doodling do? Appl Cognit Psychol 2009;24:100-6.  Back to cited text no. 14
Chan E. The negative effect of doodling on visual recall task performance. Cognit Res Rep 2012;1:6. Available from: http://www.ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/ubcujp/article/view/2526/182428. [Last cited on 2013 Aug 18].  Back to cited text no. 15
Hembrooke H, Gay G. The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. J Comput Higher Educ 2003;15:46-64.  Back to cited text no. 16
de Guzman AB, Perlas CA, Palacios AM, Peralta MR. Surfacing Filipino student nurses' perspectives of comfort and comforting viewed through metaphorical lens. Nurse Educ Today 2007;27:303-11.  Back to cited text no. 17
American Art Therapy Association. Alexandria: The Association; c2013. AATA News and Information; [about 1 screen]. Available from: http://www.arttherapy.org/aata-newsandinfo.html. [Last updated on 2013 Jan 23; Last cited on 2013 Aug 18].  Back to cited text no. 18
Jim L. Doodle Dreams: Inspiration for Living Life Outside the Lines. 1st ed. Chicago (IL): Meredith Books Publishers; 2008.  Back to cited text no. 19
MacKillop J, Anderson EJ. Further psychometric validation of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). J Psychopathol BehavAsses 2007;29:289-93.  Back to cited text no. 20
Zvolensky MJ, Solomon SE, McLeish AC, Cassidy D, Bernstein A, Bowman CJ, et al. Incremental validity of mindfulness-based attention in relation to the concurrent prediction of anxiety and depressive symptomatology and perceptions of health. Cogn Behav Ther 2006;35:148-58.  Back to cited text no. 21
Brown KW, Ryan RM. The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol 2003;84:822-48.  Back to cited text no. 22
Xenia H. The Lost Art of Doodling. The Sydney Morning Herald; October 2009. p. 1. Available from: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/society-and-culture/the-lost-art-of-doodling-20091006-gkah.html. [Last cited on 2013 Aug 18].  Back to cited text no. 23
Badger RG, Sutherland P, White G, Haggis T. Note perfect: An investigation of how students view taking notes in lectures. System 2001;29:405-17.  Back to cited text no. 24
Courneya CA. Medical doodles: 30 minutes well spent. CMAJ 2012;184:1395-6.  Back to cited text no. 25


  [Figure 1]

This article has been cited by
1 COVID-19: A catalyst for online creativity for individuals with a life-limiting illness
Amanda Roberts
Journal of Applied Arts & Health. 2021; 00(00): 1
[Pubmed] | [DOI]
2 No Evidence for Performance Improvements in Episodic Memory Due to Fidgeting, Doodling or a “Neuro-Enhancing” Drink
Gianluca Amico,Sabine Schaefer
Journal of Cognitive Enhancement. 2019;
[Pubmed] | [DOI]


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article
Neurological Bas...
Doodling and Memory
Doodling and Psy...
Doodling and Ing...
Doodling as an A...
Article Figures

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded639    
    Comments [Add]    
    Cited by others 2    

Recommend this journal