Stickmen, Smilies, and Students

A look into doodling.


Doodles by Braxton Small

Swirling lines meld into warped smiley faces. Constellations of stars and fields of flowers dot the page. Stickmen and lazily drawn bubble letters float around the margins. A bolt of electricity goes down your spine. The whole class is staring at you as the teacher expects you to answer a question that you didn’t even hear. A common problem for those who are an unlucky combination of daydreamers, lollygaggers, and especially, doodlers.

Doodling is very common; in fact a majority of US presidents were known doodlers. (There’s a whole book about it.) Theodore Roosevelt liked to draw animals and children, JFK sketched sailboats, a children’s clothing line featured prints inspired by the geometric designs scrawled on former President Hoover’s papers. But between the squiggles, smilies, and zigzags littering the pages of notebooks and worksheets, one may believe it’s hard to pay attention while doodling. However, a study cited in a 2016 Harvard Health Blog article may contradict this belief. 

In this study a psychologist had 40 people listen to a long and rambling mock phone call. Half of the participants were instructed to shade in a shape and the other half were not. When both groups were asked to repeat the details in the phone call, the doodling group memorized 29% more information. In the article, they say this may be because doodling is a “last-ditch attempt” from your brain to stay attentive. The study however does not account for more focused and complex drawing, which may be troublesome according to Mr. Van Winkle, one of DCHS’s high school teachers.

“If someone is doodling and can still focus at the task at hand, I don’t mind… However if it’s causing a distraction and causing them to lose focus- if I notice someone doodling instead of studying the week’s upcoming test and they are then failing the test, I’m going to be a bit more leery than someone who got a 100%.” said Van Winkle. “But it mostly depends on the individual, I don’t mind doodlers- as long as their ears are listening. I doodle during meetings- not very artistically though.”

Moving from a classroom and studying-oriented viewpoint to one more concerned with doodling’s relationship with art, Noonan shared her perspective.

“I think doodlers have a need to draw, and to me it shows that a career in art may be in their future. I did doodle in school quite a bit… but I didn’t get in much trouble for it. I just liked the feeling when I drew something- I knew that wasn’t a common talent. The doodling phase in my life is pretty much over- I guess I do doodle a little bit… It keeps a part of your brain active. “

While Mrs. Noonan may not doodle as much as a high school student, art is naturally a big part of her life. For Valori Olson, a sophomore at DCHS, an avid reader as well as a member of our school’s Quiz Bowl team and a successful competitor in competitive extemporaneous speech, Valori has proven herself to be quite knowledgeable. But as a notorious artist in our school, the ideas of both of these teachers are reflected, a balance between focus and creativity, as well as a place in art in someone’s future.

Valori shows off her sketches as she starts a new one.
Photo by Braxton Small

“I don’t find it hard to pay attention while doodling. I doodle because A, I’m bored, or because B, I just feel like it.” For her, doodling is a lot more habitual. “There’s just some stuff I want to draw, so I doodle it. I usually draw heads, faces, and expressions, but when I draw during school depends on the class… On certain pages [in my sketchbook] I just doodle whatever, but on others there are more serious drawings,” Olson said.

Noonan’s mention of doodling activating a part of the brain and Olson’s talk of how doodling is almost instinctual to her has scientific foundations. Reported in the aforementioned Harvard Health Blog, doodling may actually activate the brain’s hippocampus, “allowing it to find lost puzzle pieces of memories, bringing them to the present, and making the picture of our lives more whole again,” helping us relax and concentrate more, as well as possibly reveal what is happening in the subconscious. 

With confidence, the blog declares doodling a form of fidgeting. Think of bouncing your leg, twiddling thumbs, or chewing gum, but with a creative spark. While doodling may not be akin to the ever growing gallery of rough sketches on the backs of my schoolwork, it represents a need for stimulation in the classroom as well as a look on how different stimuli help our brain process, retain, and focus on information.