You probably don't doodle on purpose. But somehow, whenever you happen to have a pen in hand and should be, well, focused, the margins of your notebook seem to fill up with lopsided hearts and your name in cursive (or maybe that pointy S we all drew in the '90s).
But while many of us consider our doodling to be a distraction, it may be just the opposite. According to research, all that free-form scribbling can actually help you concentrate and retain information, especially during dull tasks.
Humans are, in general, bad at multitasking. Studies have shown that performance suffers significantly when people try to polish off several tasks at once. Doodling, however, is about the only thing our brains can take on when we're already doing something else. It's mindless enough not to cause "cognitive overload," but just stimulating enough to prevent spacing out.
In fact, the minimal attention required for doodling appears to boost focus and memory. According to a 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, 40 people listened to a recording of names and places and then wrote down what they remembered. Researchers told half of the participants to doodle during the recording, and those participants recalled almost 30% more information than the non-doodlers.
Some experts have recommended doodling as a learning aid. Students can try doodling about a lecture topic as a way to visualize the material, as LiveScience reported. Pedagogical research has consistently shown that presenting information in several ways enhances comprehension. And writing down information is a well-proven method to enhance retention. So draw what you hear, and you'll learn it better.
The benefits of doodling, however, don't extend to other habits that boredom might bring out. When students used laptops or smartphones in class, research recently showed their and their classmates' focus waned. In-class computer use has become the norm among college students. But growing up on all those screens hasn't given digital natives any enhanced ability to stay engaged in a discussion while thinking up a tweet or perusing sample sales. Doodling, however, keeps you offline and absorbs your bored energy without interrupting concentration.
So the next time you catch yourself doodling and think "I should really pay attention", don't worry — you already are.