A few years ago I saw an article that supports a long-held understanding I’ve had: drawing while listening is great for retaining information. Specifically, doodle drawings, or any kind of mindless drawing or coloring, that does not engage your creative thought processes.

While I’ve copied the link to the original article below, it basically just reinforces the ideas I’m talking about, and uses the experiences of several people and some studies to do so.

My own experience is that at an early age, I discovered that I learned and remembered what a teacher was saying if I drew simple cartoons and shapes. Invariably, teachers complained that it was just the opposite and demanded that I stop drawing and pay attention. It only worked for me if I could hide it or if I was already supposed to be taking notes. I found that taking notes for specific names and facts was essential, but so was doodling around these regular notes. By the time I got to Freshman year of college I had made note-taking while doodling a specific discipline and it really helped me do well.

Every time I looked at notes that had doodles, I could recall the entire lecture more easily.

It Really Works

However, there is one big caveat. If you engage the creative part of your brain you lose input completely. Doodling is like driving. It’s a task that you can do on auto-pilot, because you’re doing things you’ve done before. Designing or inventing is another thing entirely, and is actually adding a second process to the drawing work. It takes over that part of your brain that is able to listen and to tell the passing of time. While it’s an awesome thing to move into this creation mode, once you do, you enter a no-time black hole of brain activity that tunes out the rest of the world.

So don’t do that. Not when you want to hear and retain something.

Here is what works:

  • Draw maze-like lines that wrap around each other.
  • Draw familiar basic shapes like cylinders, cubes, or spheres.
  • Draw faces or cartoons in ways that you’ve done before.
  • Don’t make decisions. Don’t design a house. Don’t invent a new character.


You probably know that pathways in the brain are created and connected when you do things a certain way. I’ve theorized that drawing from 3D models at an early age creates 3D pathways for the rest of your life. My completely unscientific experiement with my son was a huge sucess in this, and the lessons on The Art Instructor use model-making as a result.

I also believe that doodling while listening creates pathways that just listening alone does not; that two modes of memory are created. This is what makes the memory more vivid and easier to remember, especially for people who are visual learners, such as artists.

The Teacher

My art students are always complaining that they have the same teachers I did. The ones who demanded eye contact. I tell them I understand, and to go back and encourage their teachers to do some research. Like the article below.

Even so, for me it takes a deliberate reminder every single day in the classroom. I feel like people are listening to me when they look up at me, and I feel like they are not paying attention if they’re looking down and doodling. I know as much as anyone how this is completely untrue, but our brains are wired to believe that eye-contact equates to attention.

So read the article if you want to have more anectodes, but basically, I’m encouraging you to just tell your students to draw when you have something really important to say. They’ll love it and they’ll remember your words for a lot longer time.

Here’s a link to the article on the Wall Street Journal. (It will open a new tab):

The Art Instructor

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