Pencil power

If you search the web, you’ll find a miniboom of articles on the benefits of doodling. Triggering this interest was an Applied Cognitive Psychology article by Jackie Andrade in 2009, which found that doodlers recall 29 percent more than non-doodlers when quizzed on a list of names they heard in an earlier voice call. Andrade and others theorize that, in spite of conventional wisdom to the contrary, doodling keeps a distracted mind focused and/or aroused.

So focused and aroused that consultants now push doodling and drawing as an aid to thinking. The consultant receiving perhaps the most press is Sunni Brown, who wrote the 2014 book, The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently. She now consults with business people looking to find insight in doodling.

Brown seems to have tapped into something: Using your fingers to form letters and shapes has a deeper effect on the mind than most of us would think. After experiments that compared handwriting and keyboarding, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer wrote in Psychological Science: “The present research suggests that…[keyboarding on laptops] results in shallower processing.

In their 2104 article, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” Mueller and Oppenheimer explain their experiments. They showed that students who took notes on a lecture performed much better afterwards in answering conceptual questions than those typing notes into their laptops.

Gabriela Goldschmidt of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology noted that not just writing but doodling seems to make a difference. As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, doodling, she says, ignites a “dialog between the mind and the hand holding a pencil and the eyes that perceive the marks on paper.”

Cathy Malchiodi, an expert in art therapy, stresses in Psychology Today that doodling is a “whole brain” activity. She and other therapists have long used art to help patients merge explicit (narrative) and implicit (sensory) memory. “Doodling is not just a way to ‘think differently,’” she writes, “it’s a way to ‘feel differently,’ too.”

What does this mean to authors? Short answer: Sketching, penciling in the margin, writing in cursive, drawing artful letters, playing with symbols—these all may offer a way to open new thinking pathways and broaden perspective. Especially when you’re getting started on a book, you can use all the fresh mental pathways you can find.

To that end, in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Karin James and Lauren Engelhardt reported that children who write letters freehand engage more parts of their brains. Brain images of the children’s so-called “reading circuit” light up during handwriting, while that same circuit remains relatively inactive during keyboarding the same letters.

Writers can take their cue from this growing body of research. The next time you’re stuck in a merry-go-round of repetitive dull thoughts, grab a paper tablet. There are times when the pencil—not the keyboard—is your friend. A few flourishes with fingers and hand can kick start the idle parts of your brain..

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