Emotional Health

The Bright Side: Doodling, Daydreaming and Forgetting — The Good Side of Tuning Out

The idea of mindfulness has a lot of currency these days, and the media is full of tips about how we can learn to be more focused. The New York Times offered ideas about how to be mindful while brushing your teeth, for example. While part of the idea of being mindful is that we get more out of an activity if we are not distracted by stray thoughts, being focused may be more complicated than concentrating on one thing at a time. Doodling, daydreaming and even forgetting have positive aspects that contribute to our ability to think that are often overlooked.

I have always been a doodler, but during my school years I was careful not to let the teacher see me do it. I often would draw during the discussion portion of the class, though I took notes when at lectures, a habit that seemed to help me remember even if I never looked at them. Later I learned that research confirms that is true.

Drawing or doodling, on the other hand, is not something that has a good reputation, and the common wisdom is that you must not be paying attention if you are doing this. It turns out to be the opposite: though defined variously as “making meaningless marks,” “dawdling” and even “wasting time,” neuropsychologists now say that this activity actually helps us focus and actively promotes learning.

Studies show that doodlers recall 29 percent more than learners who don’t do it. How is this possible? We actually absorb information using four different modalities: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic. Learning is improved when we use more than one of these at a time. When we draw, we are employing all four modalities.

Far from being distracting, the effort we put into our doodles actually keeps distracting thoughts at bay. This gives our mind more room to hear the words that are being said. This is particularly true when the information being dispensed is of average complexity. The more complex the material, the harder it is to process, and in these instances taking notes can be more useful — i.e. don’t do this in astrophysics class. The activity of translating what is said into sentences you can understand as you write helps you think through complex ideas. But for most kinds of discussions, doodling works just fine.

Daydreaming has also gotten an undeservedly bad reputation. Not all daydreaming is a waste of time. On the contrary, psychologists think that it helps us shape our goals and motivate us to work harder. A student who fantasizes about his future at a good college is more likely to work toward getting there than one who can’t imagine himself in that situation. To get what you want you have to know that you want it first, and daydreaming can be a kind of planning.

Many of us have experienced how letting our minds wander for a bit may get us unstuck when we are trying to solve a problem. The brain areas that allow people to solve complex problems become more active during daydreaming, according to research published in 2009 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The author of the study, psychologist Kalina Christoff, said “Mind-wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness, … but this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.”

Many creative thinkers find that some of their best ideas occur to them when daydreaming. It may be that this kind of thinking distracts attention from immediate tasks to solve other, more important problems. This can be explained by looking at brain activity directly. Educator Ned Herrmann explains, brain waves occur in four states depending on your level of activity. Herrmann breaks down each state by decreasing wave frequency. We have four kinds of brain waves: beta, when we are concentrating; alpha, when we are relaxed; delta, when we sleep deeply; and theta.

Interviewed by Scientific American, Hermann says, “At your most active, you generate beta waves (for example, in the middle of a job interview). When you’re relaxed — like when you’ve finally wrapped a big project and can take a breath — your brain switches to alpha waves. … the fourth stage is delta and it occurs when you’re in a deep sleep.”  The third stage, theta, is the one that’s best for problem solving. Herrmann says:

“Individuals who do a lot of freeway driving often get good ideas during those periods when they are in theta. … This can also occur in the shower or tub or even while shaving or brushing your hair. It is a state where tasks become so automatic that you can mentally disengage from them. The ideation that can take place during the theta state is often free flow and occurs without censorship or guilt.”

Theta waves are also produced when we are in the twilight stage between sleep and waking. Herrmann explains, “This time can be extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.”

Forgetting is never good, however, or is it? The capacity to forget extraneous information is actually quite useful. Likewise, a related skill, the ability to ignore, deny or forget about worrisome things is crucial. There are many anxiety-provoking issues that plague us all, and if we did not possess the ability to push them aside we would be very distracted. Most of the time we proceed as if the world is a safe place, a necessary assumption that allows us to do all kinds of things that actually carry a certain amount of risk, like driving a car.

When we experience trauma, we are confronted with the fact that safety is an illusion much of the time, and our functioning is seriously compromised. A clear example is the aftermath of terror attacks: the main idea behind them is to rob us of our feelings of safety and they are usually very effective. Over time, however, if we are lucky, we regain our ability for “healthy denial,” the sense that though the worst is possible, it is not probable, so we can get on with life. Research experimenting with marijuana as a treatment for trauma victims is underway — capitalizing on its well-known side effect of making our brains a little foggy when it comes to memory.

There are some people who have a rare condition called hyperthymesia in which they have the capacity to remember almost everything that has happened in their lives. These individuals have the ability to recall in minute detail every day of their lives, usually beginning around the age of 10. But this extraordinary remembering skill is not like having a “photographic memory,” which is also known as eidetic imagery or memory — people with hyperthymesia, called HSAM for short, can remember only autobiographic details. Their ability to remember general information is the same as most of us.

HSAM people say that it is more of a burden than a blessing. One woman, interviewed on the radio show and podcast “This American Life” said that she has been unable to get over the death of her husband. She can recall losing him, both the events and the emotions, with such vividness that she is constantly reliving his death in her mind. Because of this hyper-awareness of the past, her ability to live in the present is quite restricted.

Though we all curse the problem of (average) age-related memory loss, it may be for the best that we cannot recall everything. Painful memories, in particular, are better off being left on the shelf where they can eventually fade away. The most extremely painful events, while sometimes crystallized as trauma, are often forgotten almost instantly, which is a blessing in some ways. As many women have pointed out, if they were able to recall the pain of childbirth in all its intensity, the population would probably dwindle and man would be headed for extinction. Happily, nature has given our brains many different ways of handling information, and it turns out each can be useful in its own way.

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