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.