Want to remember more of what you learn? There's a very simple practice that science has shown will really help. It's so easy that absolutely anyone can do it. In fact, you've done it yourself, when you were a child, although maybe not since then. It's drawing.

"But I can't draw!" you might say. I know I certainly can't. But the thing is, it doesn't matter how good or bad you are at drawing. It probably doesn't even matter whether the drawing looks like what you had in mind, or whether it looks like anything at all. What matters is how that simple act engages your brain and boosts your retention.

You probably already know that writing something down increases the likelihood you'll remember it, even if you never go back and read what you've written. This is especially true if you write notes by hand, rather than typing them into a computer or phone. 

It turns out that drawing whatever you're trying to remember will dramatically improve your retention even compared with handwritten notes. In a fascinating experiment, Yale graduate student Jeffrey Wammes gave subjects words to remember such as kite and peanut. Half of them were asked to draw the objects in question, while the other half were asked to write the word down over and over. In other variations on the experiment, subjects were instead asked to write a list of the object's characteristics, or to visualize the object, or to look at existing pictures of it. 

It didn't matter. When the subjects were asked to recall the objects (after performing some "filler tasks" that would get them thinking about other things), the group who drew the objects remembered more of them than any other group. In some cases, they remembered more than twice as many. Even when, in a later experiment, subjects' drawing time was reduced to only four seconds, they still remembered their objects better than those who hadn't drawn them.

Doodling works too

In fact, it might not matter if you're actually drawing what you're trying to remember, or just making meaningless doodles. In one experiment from nine years ago, subjects were asked to listen to a long and rambling voicemail message. Those who were told to doodle had 29 percent better recollection than those who were told to simply listen. This is why it's usually smart to give in to the temptation to doodle during a meeting, and to encourage your employees or colleagues to do the same.

Wammes believes that drawing objects creates such a powerful memory boost because it brings together three important mental functions--semantic (the language understanding that tells you what, say, the word kite means), motor (the act of drawing), and visual--seeing what you drew. When he delved deeper into these functions in a subsequent study, his findings suggested that the visual element was the least powerful of the three. That might explain why doodling is also an effective way to increase retention.

In fact, some artists and architects say that they can look at a photograph they've taken and remember nothing about taking it or even why they did so, but when looking at a sketch they drew, they'll have a much clearer recollection of where they were and what was happening at the time. It's as if the memory is associated with the physical activity of drawing and then stored within the drawing or doodle. When you look at the drawing, you remember the act of drawing it, and all other memories from that moment come back as well.

So, next time you take a class or have an important meeting and you want to remember as much as you can, try sketching, or doodling, or using a combination of words and drawings to record your thoughts. If your lack of artistic skill embarrasses you, you don't have to show your work to anyone. Those drawings or doodles just may help you store more of that important information in your brain.

Published on: Sep 19, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.