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Bored? Try Doodling To Keep The Brain On Task

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Bored? Try Doodling To Keep The Brain On Task

Your Health

Bored? Try Doodling To Keep The Brain On Task

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. In Your Health today we have two stories that examine common wisdom about how the brain works. In a minute, and just in time for spring, we'll find out what hot weather has to do with headaches. But first a report on the relationship between doodling and boredom. Many people might think that doodling is a sign that somebody is not paying attention, but you should think again. NPR's Alix Spiegel explains.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Four years ago at Davos, the World Economic Forum, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on a panel with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, the rock star Bono and some others. The subject was development in Africa, and the session went well, nothing out of the ordinary. According to David Greenberg, a professor of journalism at Rutgers University, it was after the panel that the scandal began.

Professor DAVID GREENBERG (Rutgers University): Afterwards, one of the British newspapers, a reporter notices some papers left behind at Tony Blair's seat. They scoop them up and find on them these rather elaborate doodles: triangles, rectangles, circles, all kinds of words in boxes. Kind of your standard meeting doodles.

SPIEGEL: So this journalist carries his prize to a graphologist, someone who analyses drawings. And after careful study, she comes to some pretty disturbing conclusions, as do the graphologists employed by a number of other British newspapers who also somehow have gotten a copy of the doodle.

Greenberg reads from a couple of different papers.

Prof. GREENBERG: I think he's under pressure, trying to complete his circles but not always succeeding. Another says Blair is not a natural leader. He's more of a spiritual person, like a vicar.

SPIEGEL: That's right. They called Blair a closet vicar. Actually, they called Blair a closet vicar with a death wish. But anyway, a couple days pass and finally Number 10 Downing Street weighs in. They have done a full investigation and have an important announcement to make.

Prof. GREENBERG: These doodles were not made by Tony Blair but were made by Bill Gates, who had left them at the next seat over.

SPIEGEL: This fact was later confirmed by an actual spokesman for the founder of Microsoft.

So Bill Gates is a doodler. Lyndon Johnson doodled. Ralph Waldo Emerson doodled. Ronald Reagan doodled. So clearly doodling isn't such a bad thing.

And to understand where the compulsion to doodle comes from, the first thing you need to do is look more closely at what happens to the brain when it becomes bored. The brain on boredom. Jackie Andrade is a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. And she says that most people's assumptions about boredom are wrong.

Professor JACKIE ANDRADE (University of Plymouth): You might intuitively think that boredom's a time when we're very passive, we're not using any energy, we're just wishing things would get more interesting. But actually, if we look at people's brain function when they're bored, we find that they are using a lot of energy; their brains are very active.

SPIEGEL: So why does your brain become more active when there's less going on? Basically, Andrade says, the brain is designed to constantly process information.

Prof. ANDRADE: And if we're not getting information from our environment, you wouldn't want the brain to just switch off, because a bear might walk up behind you and attack you. You need to be on the lookout for something happening.

SPIEGEL: So when brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they essentially go on the prowl, scavenge for something to think about. And typically what they end up doing is manufacturing their own material. They turn to daydreams.

Prof. ANDRADE: And that mind wandering takes a lot of effort. And also, because often when we're daydreaming, we daydream about things that really matter to us or interest us. It's hard to get out of that daydream and back into the task you're meant to be doing.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to the subject of doodling. According to Professor Andrade, who recently published a study on doodling, the function of doodling is to provide just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from taking the more radical step of totally opting out and running off into fantastical daydreams. To figure this out, Andrade gathered a group of people and gave half a doodling task, the other half no task. She then explained that they would be listening to a tape of a telephone message and played them this.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, are you doing anything on Saturday? I'm having a birthday party and I was hoping you could come. It's not actually my birthday, it's my sister Jane's. She'll be 21. She's coming out from London for the weekend, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for her.

SPIEGEL: On and on goes the message. When it finally came to an end, Andrade asked participants to recall some very specific details. And this is what she found. The doodlers remembered much more than the non-doodlers.

Prof. ANDRADE: Remembered about 29 percent more information from the tape than the people who were just listening to the tape.

SPIEGEL: In other words, doodling doesn't detract from your concentration, it can help it by diminishing your need to resort to daydreams - a good strategy for the next time you find yourself stuck listening to well-meaning speeches from an aging rock star and verbose former president. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Oh my. Well, you know, do doodle while you're listening to this so that you remember. You can see some doodles drawn by presidents, including President Obama, at npr.org.

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