In defense of doodling: Sunni Brown at TED2011

I'm at TED2011 in Long Beach. I've seen several interesting presentations today. One of my favorites was with the head of Al Jazeera ( "Corrupt regimes have lost the power to deceive") Another was Sunni Brown, author of Gamestorming, who offered a persuasive defense of doodling. She said throughout history doodling has a bad rap. It's considered rude an inappropriate at work ("Akin to masturbating"). There's a strong cultural norm against it. The press likes to write about "catching" politicians doodling when they should be paying attention.

However, Brown says, the fact that they are doodling means they probably are paying attention. "Doodling is a pre-emptive measure to stop you from losing focus." Research has shown that you retain information better when it is combined with some kind of stimulus. Doodling helps with retaining information, because when you are doodling it engages four types of stimulation: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.

Doodling is "a portal to move people through higher levels of visual literacy."

I think doodling focuses the brain in the same way knitting, whittling, and kneading silly putty does. As a big-time fidgeter, I need to be doing something with my hands when I'm talking with people or I start to go nuts.


  1. Yay! I have long encouraged my students to doodle, and have talked to teachers re: same.

    Sadly, as soon as the teacher says it’s good…

  2. ‘I think doodling focuses the brain in the same way knitting, whittling, and kneading silly putty does.’

    Exactly. I’ve been knitting for about 25 years. I’ve thought it was a left brain/right brain thing. When I’m listening to someone talk, radio, iTunes, a movie, a book on tape, I listen more intently for being focused on the stitches. Most knitters will say the same.

    Also I’ve found that knitters like mystery books and puzzles. And wine. Preferably all three at the same time.

  3. I read the post title as “drooling.” Which is, sadly, what I end up doing at meetings in lieu of doodling.

  4. I have never let anyone pressure me into not doodling. I have archived my incidental drawings from high school through college and various work environments. I have even scanned and printed some of them on canvas, and have sold quite a few.

  5. That seems to be common knowledge at all the art colleges I’ve been to, but general non art classes take the approach that if you’re doodling you’re not paying attention. I doodle anyways because if I don’t keep my hand moving drawing something I can’t remember what’s being heard. I’m very tactile and really learn better with hands than with hearing a lecture.

  6. As a chronic doodler I’ve known this all my life. I was told by pretty much every professor I ever hand, including a famous illustrator, to stop drawing in class.

    I would tell them I can draw or I can be disruptive. Your Choice.

    They’d nod and let me get back to doodling.

  7. Probably one of the reasons that doodling is so widely verboten is because of the emphasis that used to be placed on note-taking in school. If you’re doodling, you’re not taking notes.

    1. That’s a mistake, though. I can write much faster than any good professor will talk, and used doodling to fill up the gaps in time. Of course I’d also doodle in classes where I didn’t pay attention, but they’re not going to get me to do that unless they make things interesting or at least difficult.

    2. My doodles and notes are side by side, not mutually exclusive. Indeed I would have far less notes if I were not doodling, for all the aforementioned reasons.

  8. Seems like chewing gum also could help improve concentration and focus ( as long as you keep your mouth closed while chewing so as not to distract those around you). I noticed last year that Red Sox player J.D. Drew seemed more likely to get a hit if he was chewing gum while at bat.

    1. You might have a point there. John Lennon generally chewed gum while performing / recording as it helped him not to think about what he was doing too much.

  9. Tuesday. Staff meeting day. At seven forty-five (not a moment before, not a moment after) the superintendent walks into the room and hands out a half a sheet of paper that contains the mornings agenda. I can’t wait for that moment. Pen in hand, I start doodling on the front and then on the back of the agenda. I take down dates, note events, and draw whatever comes to mind.

    Usually I sit next to the art teacher or one of the math teachers (the one next door to me) because they laugh and comment on my doodles. Once and awhile I sit next to the superintendent (whom I consider a close friend) but he gets so absorbed in what I’m doodling that he has trouble running the meeting.

    Some of my most lucid classroom memories I connect to some of my best doodling sessions. High school history classes and college anthropology stand out in my mind because of the great pen and ink drawings I made. Notebooks from those classes are kept under my desk, and I occasionally pull them out to share with my science classes. Abstract and bizarre, I’ve pointed out to kids, administrators and other educators my method of recording information clockwise around a page. The strongest memories are not associated with the words I’ve written, but the random pictures I’ve drawn.

    The doodle is mighty and powerful. As a teacher, I’m glad to see parents out there that value it as much as I.

  10. All other things being equal, would you rather be operated on by a surgeon who spent their time doodling during med school lectures, or one who spent their time taking notes?

    Doodling (or any other mental distraction) isn’t inherently bad; the question is whether you would be better served by simply paying attention, despite your desire to engage in an alternate activity. I’ll bet some people do well *because* they doodle while others do well *despite* doodling.

    1. All other things being equal, would you rather be operated on by a surgeon who spent their time doodling during med school lectures, or one who spent their time taking notes?

      I would choose the surgeon who has the best demonstrated skill, regardless of what they did with / on / while taking their class notes. We have learned that different brain types absorb information differently, so one person’s distraction may be the very way another is able to focus. Who is to say what is a better means for another person’s brain to assimilate knowledge?

      1. As to surgeons, a cousin of mine went to the same high school 15 years before me, but the teachers recalled him so well that they often asked if I was a relation. More than one mentioned that during class, instead of taking notes, he would practice keeping his hands steady by slipping long needles through drinking straws without touching the sides.

        It seems to have worked out ok – he’s been the chair of neurosurgery at the largest hospital in the region for many years now, and even when I lived a thousand miles away I had people occasionally ask if I knew him, before telling me miracle stories of work he’d done on their relatives.

        I just doodle mazes.

    2. You _just explained_ why “all other things being equal”, doodling doesn’t matter at all. Protip: when trolling, don’t contradict yourself. You get more bites, the more forcefully you state your `claim’.

  11. I miss teaching at the of art school in SF. the students doodlebooks were always fun to see after a lecture. on top of that assigned story boards were top notch.

  12. I am in favor of this. I still remember in significant detail my best doodle session, due to the amount of bullshit that I was forced to listen to (which was Extreme: Cutco knives) and the quality of the doodle: some of my best work, I still have it.

    Basically the meeting consisted of: “Sell Knives! Don’t date coworkers! This job is Awesome! Sell knives!”

  13. And yet, despite the impressive arguments made in favor of doodling during class or meetings, I still prefer masturbating. My jittery notes occasionally require a cryptologist to decipher, but I’m the most relaxed fellow in the room. Let the TEDsters make of it what they will.

  14. “Akin to masturbating”
    Jeez, that’s most of business, sales, and marketing.

    Doodling is merely keeping your spatial brain awake during
    stupid meatings. Anyone who doesn’t get it should be
    in an Amish community, or similarly, marketing sales and execs.

    Where they’ll be tossed for onanism. If discovered, unlikely because
    their peers are similar wankers.

  15. I was a diligent doodler in high school. One of my teachers told me (some time after I was out of his class) that it annoyed him. He would ask me a question, assuming that I wasn’t paying attention; I’d give him the correct answer. He figured he had no grounds telling me to knock it off.

  16. I have the opposite experience with doodling. I’ve often heard that doodling helps you pay attention (this is not a new idea). I like drawing, too, though I’m not particularly good at it (I can draw a penguin, in this case one dressed as Indiana Jones).

    I never generally had too much trouble paying attention in class at university, or paying attention to a speaker in any other context. If what they’re saying is BS my mind will wander off, but rarely would I even go to something that I thought might be BS. Also, I don’t feel the need to fidget; although I do fidget a *little bit* usually, I don’t *have* to.

    But I thought doodling might be good, because I can never decipher any notes that I take anyway, so taking notes is pointless… but if I just sit there listening, I don’t absorb things as well. So I tried doodling… most of my attention was directed toward the doodling, not what I was supposed to be paying attention to. Later, I had no idea what they were talking about, and all I had was a page full of shitty drawings (usually I gave up before being anywhere near filling the page actually).

    Different strokes (get it?) I guess.

  17. This is great. However, apart from back in elementary school, I’ve not really come across any working environment where doodling was considered ‘inappropriate.’ But then again, I’ve never worked in the corporate sector.

  18. At school i received many a telling off and occasional detentions due to my compulsive doodling. The usual phrases were “You can’t draw and listen at once.” or “you cannot do two things at once!”.I often relied that i, like many people, actually needed to keep my hyperactive hands busy so i COULD listen and everyone can do AT LEAST two things at once. I should add i was a straight A student.

    Years later I’ve done some time as a concept artist, illustrator and about to go back to college to study drawing. I have worked as a tutor myself, various subjects, and was always happy to see the page filled with nonsense drawings amid the notes. Let us change this negative view of what is obviously an ancient instinct.


  19. @bookburn

    “The doodle is mighty and powerful”

    That’s a best selling t-shirt right there :D

  20. As a designer I’d be quite surprised to learn that doodling at work is inappropriate.

    If, however, you’re a project manager that’s supposed to be paying attention in a meeting, it’s a different matter.

  21. Some of you don’t get it; doodling IS paying attention. It’s not “I have to sit here so I’m going to do something else instead.”

    If I have paper and something to write with, I will doodle geometrically. I can’t draw, but I will make mazes or Celtic knotwork or overlapping sine waves or distorted checker patterns or something. I did this throughout school, taking very few notes, and did well.

    Now that I’m accustomed to having my smartphone instead of a pad of paper, I’m definitely distracted during meetings. There’s absolutely a difference between keeping your hands busy and checking Facebook or playing Collapse.

  22. I have always been a doodler, mostly of faces, and I’ve actually kept quite a few doodles dating back to high school (and have made/am making collages from same). Doodling has always helped me focus (or at least stay awake), especially in interminable staff or other kinds of meetings.

    The only times I felt I really couldn’t doodle (especially when a secondary school principal) is when I was conducting the meeting or when Big Cheeses were present.

    Nice to see doodling vindicated.

  23. PS: Some of the other comments reminded me of an experience I had when visiting a cousin on the campus of Bob Jones University: BJU actually has (or had) proctors who go around in classrooms who look to make sure that people are taking notes and not doodling. One can get a demerit for doodling (and above a certain threshold of demerits, one is confined to campus, and above that, one is expelled). Srsly.

  24. PS: Some of the other comments reminded me of an experience I had when visiting a cousin on the campus of Bob Jones University: BJU actually has (or had) proctors who go around in classrooms who look to make sure that people are taking notes and not doodling. One can get a demerit for doodling (and above a certain threshold of demerits, one is confined to campus, and above that, one is expelled). Srsly.

  25. It always amuses me, when I go on a teacher training event, to look around the room at my fellow teachers to see how many are doodling, fidgeting, lolling in chairs etc – ie all of the behaviour they would berate kids for doing in their classrooms.

  26. One of my grade 6 students made a wonderful discovery this year about doodling. When he had to write about an area of difficulty he was having, he wrote that he never listens because he is too busy doodling. I asked what he was listening to. He answered, “The story in my head about my pictures.”
    We suggested that he doodle his lessons. He now carries a drawing book where he draws his lessons for science, math and language. Sometimes his pictures are labelled. He can now recall concepts and can explain his drawings. Listening is now longer an issue.

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