The higher purpose of doodling

Is the employee who DOODLES at office meetings a goof-off who's neglecting his or her responsibilities? Or is he or she actually exercising something that could be called "Doodle Diligence"? A question this morning for our Lee Cowan:

An earlier version of this story was originally broadcast on January 19, 2014.

How many of us, when we let our minds drift, find that our pencils drift right along with it?

To the doodler, the canvas can be anything -- a napkin, a margin, a soon-to-be-discarded envelope.

Yet for all its ubiquity, the doodle seems to be the artistic equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield -- it just gets no respect.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary reduces the doodle to a "drawing made absentmindedly."

And boy, does that upset doodler Sunni Brown: "I don't like the definition! I'm not pleased with the definition, that is correct!"

What's wrong with it, Cowan asked? "It's totally inaccurate," said Brown. "It's not an accurate representation of what's happening for a doodler."

Brown is convinced that doodling isn't a mindless activity, but instead engages the mind in a way that helps us think.

So much so she's written a manifesto of sorts, called "The Doodle Revolution," that lays out her case.

"I want to flip the entire conversation and be like, okay, let's actually acknowledge this as a valuable tool and as a valuable technique. What, then, can we do with it?" she said.

For her, drawing what she calls "Info-doodles" can help in problem-solving, and aid in memory retention, by creating a visual language that she insists is more powerful than most people know.

"I've seen people tackling serious challenges, and they inevitably go straight to the white board or straight to the wall and start mapping it to have a more effective conversation," Brown said. "And then you have that visual explanation to help people understand what's really happening."

Her Austin-based consultancy, SB Ink, now offers doodling workshops. Her clients are major retailers and media companies . . . who are starting to catch on.

But the doodle, she says, still has doubters.

"There are skeptics everywhere, and I encounter them all the time -- and I love them," Brown said.

"They say all the usual stuff: 'Oh, it's a waste of time.' 'Oh, it's mindless scratching.' They say everything that you would expect them to say when you misunderstand and you underestimate something."

Andrew Silton stopped underestimating the power of the doodle after he realized he'd been doing it most of his professional life.

"For me it was definitely something more," Silton said. "I actually think it was rather important."

Andy Silton doodle 244.jpg
Andrew Silton drew this when he was supposedly doing something else.
Courtesy Andrew Silton

Over a career that spanned three decades in asset management, Stilton amassed oodles of doodles, drawn while he was actually leading important financial meetings all over the world.

The longer the meetings, the more detailed the doodles.

"What do you think prompted it? Were you just bored in the meetings?" Cowan asked.

"No. I think it was actually a way of staying engaged in the meetings," he replied. "I suspect that what it does is, it occupied me from thinking about other stuff."

That notion -- that doodles may open the door to better concentration -- has been getting the attention of researchers of late.

In a study published in 2009 in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, researcher Jackie Andrade played a tedious voicemail to a group of volunteers. Some were asked to doodle, while others simply listened to the message. Turns out the doodlers remembered 29 percent more details than the non-doodling group.

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