Think with your hands

Creativity and mental wellbeing for students & homeworkers

Have you ever found yourself listening to something mundane, then floating off into your own imagination, your hand scribbling random things on a piece of paper in front of you? Whether it’s a video conference or call or a tedious presentation, being ‘present’ can be a test when your hands want to be in ‘the moment’. 

Nobody is immune to this either. Traditionally, we might consider these doodles as a sign of distraction — an indication that your mind was not where it was supposed to be. Yet, research has shown that doodling is not an enemy of attention; it may in fact be a friend – something we’ve been exploring successfully with our students.

Doodling and memory

According to Sunni Brown, author of The Doodle Revolution, it’s a thinking tool that can affect the processing of information and problem-solving. This notion is backed up by scientific research in a UK study by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2009, which found that people were able to recall 29 percent more information if they were doodling. When you’re bored, your fight-or-flight system will do all that it can to rally and stay alert. Doodling (a form of fidgeting) may be a last-ditch attempt at staying awake and attentive. Doodling keeps you from falling asleep, or simply staring blankly when your brain has already turned off. The permission to ‘free-draw’ keeps your brain online just a little while longer.

Paying continuous attention places a strain on the brain, and doodling may be just the break your brain needs to keep focusing without losing total interest. A report on the learning styles of medical students indicated that even they may find doodling helpful. A simple 30-minute doodle helps them remember information, fills in gaps in their thinking, and provides a much-needed reprieve from the loads of information they must wade through.

A view of creative intelligence is forming in psychology. It’s the discovery that thinking doesn’t happen in an abstract, disembodied mind. This is known as embodied cognition. In effect we change our minds by moving our hands. Psychologists are now recognising something that artists have intuitively always known – that we think with our hands as much as our brains.

At Digital Innovators we build on this idea with our students by encouraging them to doodle not just with the traditional pen and paper but to also use small building blocks to replicate their thoughts in creative forms. The trick is to allow your hands to build whilst listening and thinking at the same time! This is called ‘Thinking with your hands’.

The results can be surprising with students staying engaged with the topic for longer periods of time and their creative input to problem solving greatly improved. In addition, students can demonstrate their thinking.

Thinking with your hands, stress and mental wellbeing

Spontaneous creativity may relieve psychological distress, making it easier to attend to things. We like to make sense of our lives by making up clear stories, but sometimes there are gaps that cannot be filled, no matter how hard we try. Doodles fill these gaps, possibly by activating the brain’s ‘time travel machine,’ allowing it to find lost puzzle pieces of memories, bringing them to the present, and making the picture of our lives more whole again. With this greater sense of self and meaning, we may be able to feel more relaxed and concentrate more.

Such creative forms may look like random shapes that make no sense, or a partial being that suddenly becomes something extra-terrestrial, but they are not quite as random as we might think. Leading psychologists use doodles to diagnose emotional problems in patients. They believe that doodles can reveal what is going on in the unconscious mind. 

So, if you’re struggling to concentrate, find yourself stuck or feeling ‘incomplete’, a time-limited doodle expedition could be just the thing you are looking for. It will likely activate your brain’s ‘unfocus’ circuits, give your ‘focus’ circuits a break, and allow you to creatively and tirelessly solve the problem at hand.

Happy doodling!

Mick Westman, Founder

An example of doodling by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Courtesy of Schulson Autographs

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