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  • Whole Child Counseling

Does Drawing While Listening Help Memory and Attention?

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

I recently saw a picture that said “I listen better when I draw” and it really struck a chord with me! I remember getting spoken to numerous times over the years during my schooling because I was often doodling or drawing. I want to disclose that this whole blog post may be totally biased because I am a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist, and so I’m really passionate about the arts!

I am still one of those people that likes to keep my hands busy. I’m the one at the staff meeting who is actively thinking about what is happening, but drawing on the edges of the powerpoint handout. In general, I don’t just do one thing at a time! I listen to a podcast and play tetris, or I watch TV and do embroidery. I guess I am a creative fidgeter.

I recently took a poll on my instagram and facebook to see if the adults I know felt like they were able to listen better when they were drawing – 71% said they listen better when they draw or doodle and 29% said no. My facebook and instagram is mostly other counselors and educators, so this isn’t exactly a well-rounded audience or a good sample of the general population, but it was interesting to see these results!

This concept of whether or not to let kids draw while in the classroom reminds me of the whole concept of “listening with your eyes” which is very popular in many educational circles. As someone who has studied attachment, I find eye contact fascinating! But the idea of forcing eye contact has never really sat well with me. I know that some people process information better when they aren’t looking at faces and so it feels like a very neurotypical directive to give a child.

There is even some research that shows that eye contact can actually interfere with other mental tasks (Glenberg, Schroeder & Robertson, 1998)! Personally, although I prefer people to look at me when I’m talking with them, I don’t think forcing eye contact is very appropriate.

I also feel the same way about drawing while listening. You can listen to someone and be drawing at the same time. I got curious and did a little research, and the results were pretty interesting – especially in terms of how drawing actually helps with remembering things! Take a look below and let me know your thoughts on this!

Here is what the research says:

First, let’s point out the obvious that drawing relieves stress. Researchers figured this out all the way back in 1938 when they determined that spontaneous drawings helped relieve psychological stress (Maclay, Guttmann, & Mayer-Gross).

How does drawing impact memory and attention?

Drawing while listening appears to impact memory. For example, a study of 40 people who listened to a 2.5 minute monotonous voicemail showed that the ones who doodled while listening recalled 29% more information (Andrade, 2010).

Not to mention, paying continuous attention is hard! I think of drawing as being kind of like a fidget tool. It gives you the ability to stay alert and tune in!

Fernandes and colleagues (2018) found that drawing information that was to-be-learned was found to enhance memory and "to be a reliable, replicable means of boosting performance." It is proposed that drawing improves memory by "promoting the integration of elaborative, pictorial, and motor codes, facilitating creation of a context-rich representation” and that "gains are greater from drawing than other known mnemonic techniques."

Over the course of my research, I also found this interesting book called Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office which states that 26 of 44 American Presidents doodled!

  • Roosevelt doodled animals and children

  • Reagan doodled cowboys & football players

  • Kennedy doodled dominoes

Over the years I've heard teachers say it is disrespectful to draw or doodle during class, as some teachers think it means a child is not listening to them. What are your thoughts on kids drawing in the classroom?

TLDR: the shorter version:


Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302-308. doi:10.1177/0963721418755385

Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 100-106. doi:10.1002/acp.1561

Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302-308. doi:10.1177/0963721418755385

Glenberg, A. M., Schroeder, J. L., & Robertson, D. A. (1998). Averting the gaze disengages the environment and facilitates remembering. Memory & Cognition, 26(4), 651-658. doi:10.3758/bf03211385

Greenberg, D. (2007). Presidential doodles: Two centuries of scribbles, scratches, squiggles & scrawls from the Oval Office. New York: Basic Books.

Maclay, W. S., Guttmann, E., & Mayer-Gross, W. (1938). Spontaneous Drawings as an Approach to Some Problems of Psychopathology. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 31(11), 1337-1350. doi:10.1177/003591573803101113

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