What do you do when you need to commit some sort of information to memory?
Let me guess, you take notes.
It’s a habit most of us learned way back in school when some teacher stuck her lecture notes up on an overhead projector and we dutifully copied them down. Most of us take it with us into adulthood. Walk into a sales training or an important presentation and you’ll find attentive audience members hard at work scribbling out (or frantically typing) the speaker’s key points.
But according to a new study they might do better if they instead came armed with a box of crayons.
The work by a team out of Canada’s University of Waterloo was a sort of head-to-head death match between available memory tricks. The team, led by PhD student Jeffrey Wammes, asked volunteers to memorize a random list of 40 words. Some carried on with that old studying standby, repeatedly writing them out, while others used techniques like creating a mental image for each word or listing their characteristics. One final group was given a more creative option — sketch, doodle, or draw each word instead. Who did best?
“We pitted drawing against a number of other known encoding strategies, but drawing always came out on top,” reported Wammes. “Participants often recalled more than twice as many drawn than written words.” (Crayons weren’t actually required — any old pen or pencil should do just as well.)
The researchers suggest this might be because of how drawing forces the brain to integrate different sort of information, including the physical sensation of moving your hand, the definition of the word you’re drawing, as well as the mental image of the doodle you produce. Whatever the reason, the finding is in line with earlier studies showing that doodling doesn’t just help you focus, but can also improve recall if you sketch the ideas the brain is processing.
You might object that you’re far from the next Picasso. In fact, maybe you’re the type that struggles to draw a convincing stick figure. But not to worry, skill isn’t required, according to the research team.
“Importantly, the quality of the drawings people made did not seem to matter, suggesting that everyone could benefit from this memory strategy, regardless of their artistic talent,” Wammes notes. Even if people only had a mere four seconds to sketch something very rough, their memory improved markedly.
Artistic ability isn’t an issue when applying this insight, but context might be. Rarely or never do you have to memorize a simple list of unrelated words in the real world. Will drawing boost your memory for other, more complicated types of information? The researchers are apparently at work on further studies to find out. But in the meantime, it can’t hurt to try.
Rather than just copy out that sales script or safety procedure, why not try to doodle each stage of the process and see if that helps it stick better in your mind?
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