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ADHD

How Doodling Helps Kids With ADHD to Focus

Despite popular belief, ADHD kids aren't spacing out when they doodle.

Key points

  • Doodling can help alleviate boredom and increase focus in ADHD kids.
  • The positive effects of doodling are mediated through increasing brain dopamine levels.
  • Art therapy is an effective treatment for kids with ADHD.
Andrew Wilcox, used with generous permission
Andrew Wilcox, used with generous permission

A friend of mine recently posted a photo on her Instagram account of neurographic art. My first thought was that it looked like doodling and it reminded me of my ADHD son’s constant doodling on his school notebooks and folders. The simple way to describe neurographic art is drawing (“neuro”) lines on a page to create various shapes. It is supposed to help with relaxation and mindfulness (so it would be great for someone with ADHD). Although I struggled to find information about neurographic art, specifically, in the ADHD population, doodling is common in those with ADHD.

Why do kids with ADHD doodle?

Because they are bored.

I used to tease my ADHD son that his planner for school never had any assignments written in it, but it had some really awesome doodles of rocket ships. My son recently admitted to me that he doodled out of boredom. In her book, ADHD and Education, Dr. Sydney Zentall points out that when kids with ADHD get bored, their struggle to pay attention becomes even greater. Interestingly, she found that when kids with ADHD perform a mindless task (e.g., doodling) while working on a primary task, they focused better on the primary task. So, my son’s doodling could actually be helping him to pay attention. Furthermore, doodling may also improve memory (Andrade, 2010), which may benefit ADHD kids who have working memory deficits.

The biology behind the benefits of doodling

Abnormal levels of a chemical in the brain called dopamine are thought to contribute to the symptoms of ADHD. Dopamine’s action in the brain can affect attention and is involved in novelty-seeking behaviors. Brain imaging studies show dopamine-rich areas of the brain, like the frontal cortex, are affected by ADHD.

Doodling involves physically moving your hands to create a design on paper. Several studies have shown that physical activity, even small movements like doodling, can increase focus in children with ADHD by affecting the levels of dopamine in certain brain areas, similar to stimulant medications.

The default mode network (DMN) are regions of the brain (including those involved in ADHD and memory) that are active when the brain is not engaged in a task. The DMN is more active in individuals with ADHD, making it difficult for them to stay on task and focus. Edward Hallowell, co-author of ADHD 2.0, recommends stretching, getting up for a glass of water, or breathing exercises to calm the DMN and switch the brain into the reciprocal task positive network (TPN), which is active when your brain is focused. Doodling may be another activity that can switch the brain from the DMN to the TPN in kids with ADHD. In fact, doodling may increase attention by reducing daydreaming, a state attributed to the DMN (Schott, 2011).

Art therapy for ADHD

Creativity is often defined as original, outside-the-box thinking, and the ability to combine unrelated ideas for a unique solution to a problem. Those with ADHD are creative, imaginative, and skilled problem-solvers making them better at music, art, or computer games. Art therapy allows those with ADHD to express their creativity while promoting problem-solving skills, increasing attention span, and boosting working memory. Importantly, art therapy also allows kids with ADHD to work through their emotions and boost their self-esteem.

Creating art activates reward centers in the brain. A study by Kaimal et al. (2017) found coloring, doodling, and free drawing activated the prefrontal cortex, the dopamine-rich brain area affected in ADHD, indicating a positive effect of art on the study participants. In addition, making art can also reduce cortisol levels, the hormone involved in stress responses. My son used to make pottery and always said it made him feel calm and relaxed. Manipulating the clay with his hands likely had the added benefit of increasing the levels of dopamine in his brain.

So, although it may seem like our ADHD kids are spacing out when they doodle, they are actually paying attention, increasing memory function, and staying calm all while expressing their creativity.

References

Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology. 24(1): 100-106.

Hallowell, E. (2021, June 24). ADHD’s Secret Demon — and How to Tame It. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/default-mode-network-adhd-brain.

Nelson, S. (2022, March 26). How Art Therapy Tames Impulsivity, Distractibility, and Anxiety. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/art-therapy-for-adhd.

Ratey, J.J., & Hagerman, E. (2013). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Little, Brown.

Rotz, R., & Wright, S.D. (2021, June 2). The Body-Brain Connection: How Fidgeting Sharpens Focus. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/focus-factors.

Schott, G.D. (2011). The art of medicine: Doodling and the default network of the brain. The Lancet. 378: 1133-34.

Silberstein, R. B., Pipingas, A., Farrow, M., Levy, F., & Stough, C. K. (2016). Dopaminergic modulation of default mode network brain functional connectivity in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Brain and Behavior, 6(12), e00582. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.582.

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