You know you're bored when you start shading in the squares of your notebook. Apparently it's a habit that could be helping you to concentrate. In a neat little experiment, Jackie Andrade asked forty participants to listen to a monotone two and a half minute phone message about arrangements for a party. They were told the message would be dull, that there was no need to memorise it, but that they should write down the names of the people who would be able to attend the party. Crucially, half the participants were also told to 'doodle' as they listened, by shading in the squares and circles of their note-paper.
Afterwards, the doodlers had noted fractionally more of the correct names (7.8 on average vs. 7.1 - a statistically significant difference). What's more, moments later, the doodlers also excelled in a surprise memory test of the guests' names and the places mentioned in the message, recalling 29 per cent more details than the non-doodlers.
Andrade said more research is obviously needed to find out how doodling helps us maintain our attention. However, her theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren't always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.
Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (1), 100-106 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561