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Drawing Attention

Why doodling helps us pay attention.

Start doodling and pay attention! Wait! That's not how it goes. Well, according to psychologist Jackie Andrade, teachers are going to have to change their tune because doodling actually helps keep a bored mind alert and attentive.

Andrade says that when bored, our brains crave stimulation and can get very busy creating fantastic scenarios to focus on. But doodling, says Andrade, offers a more functional compromise-a mild amusement that makes the dullness more palatable. For instance, when she asked her study subjects to listen to a boring phone message, the half that doodled through the tape were significantly better able to recount what was said than the other group which sat still and listened.

Andrade explained the doodle-bump as evidence of a brain that has not forgotten what it like to be preyed upon by creatures stronger, faster, and bigger. Even today, Andrade says, our bored brains will compel our hands to pick up a pen or pencil and pour out images that our eyes cannot help but follow. And that last bit-our visual fascination with movement--is the clue that doodling is a legacy of a time when we dared not drift off into fantasy.

For a million years we literally watched for a living and what we watched were animals. The human brain, even in infancy, is more attracted to toy animals that have realistic, self-propelled movement than non-animal objects such as balls or trucks-even when they are moving. It seems we are still particularly interested in "animated joint-movement"-especially when those moving joints have a face.

But denied the real thing, our eyes still desperately seek and follow movement, even if we have to make it with our own hand. And since there can be a delay of up to ten seconds between the time our subconscious brain initiates an action and our conscious brain becomes aware of it, the unfolding patterns of our dreamy doodling can seem like the curious behavior of another. This may make our doodles both vaguely familiar and unpredictable at the same time, creating an attentive sweet spot that accommodates both vigilance and creativity.

For millions of years we were never "just watching" which is why now, we are never "just doodling." We can only hope our eyes find our "wild hand behavior" even half as interesting and inspiring as the animals that made us what we are today.

Jackie Andrade on NPR: "Bored? Try Doodling To Keep the Brain on Task."

Lori Markson and Elizabeth S. Spelke, "Infants' Rapid Learning About Self-Propelled Objects," Infancy 9 (2006): 45-71

Chun Sioon Soon, et al., "Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain," Nature Neuroscience 11 (2008): 543-545.

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