Monday, March 28, 2011

Checking up on a claim, in this case, that doodling improves your memory

A friend attended the most recent TED conference and came back with an exciting comment about doodling   ("People who doodle can retain nearly 30% more information than those who don't!").  Being a skeptical kind of guy and knowing a bit about the psychology of multitasking, I looked up the original reference for a little background and found out that's not quite right.

Question is, how do you approach such an open-ended task? I'm not sure who the author of the study is or where the original work is from.  Because it's a quote from the 2011 TED conference, I'm willing to bet it's pretty recent.  So I start with the obvious search: 

[ information retention doodling ] 

I chose these words carefully.  I included "retention" because of the use of the word "retain" in the original post.  

Key hint here:  People usually preserve special words from the original article when writing about ideas like this.  It's a bit like archaeology, looking for features that are preserved from the original.  (That's not always true, but it works more often than you'd expect.)  

I included "doodling" for the same reason.  I was hopeful that this would work, but not positive.  They might have called it "sketching" or "scribbling" or something else.  But I gave this a shot and... Voilà!  
A quick clickthrough to the paper, and it's pretty clear that this is the one that generated the comment.  (See the abstract, citation and link below.)  

As with many such cog-psych results, you have to be a little careful in the interpretation of the study.  The "doodling" task was just shading in areas on a pre-printed page (that's VERY low cognitive overhead, in particular, it's less demanding than even normal doodling).  

In the study, the primary task (listening for names) was VERY simple, and the "recall" of information was really just noting names as they were mentioned in real-time.  The primary task was also designed to be boring, so people who didn't have the doodling secondary task suffered from vigilance problems. 

In particular, as Andrade's paper says, "their doodling would not have the spontaneous, automatic quality of naturalistic doodling."  The participants were doing "name spotting" (that is, listening for names of people) and NOT doing any memory task but rather, a recognition task.

So it's far from a ringing endorsement of normal doodling as a constructive/focusing secondary task! 

If anything, it's a recognition that very simple, non-conflicting  tasks help maintain vigilance on the primary task (that is, the secondary task "reduces daydreaming").... especially when the primary task is very dull.  Chewing gum would probably accomplish the same effect.  (I wish they would have tested that!!)  

When checking on the credibility / authority of such a comment, you don't always get quite as lucky as I did with this search.  But it's well worth doing.  Check your sources, you never know quite what you'll learn in the process!  

Search on!  

Here's the original paper that was being slightly misquoted.

Jackie Andrade
Appl. Cognit. Psychol. (2009)Published online in Wiley InterScience
Doodling is a way of passing the time when bored by a lecture or telephone call. Does it improve or hinder attention to the primary task? To answer this question, 40 participants monitored a monotonous mock  telephone message for the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a  doodling’ condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test. Unlike many dual task situations, doodling while working can be beneficial. Future research could test whether doodling aids cognitive performance by reducing daydreaming.  

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