Doodle Up Your Memory

Doodling and drawing has a marked effect on better understanding, as well as being heavily related to how mind maps function. In the end, we come upon a guiding principle: when we are learning, we should aim to spend no more than fifty percent of our time consuming, and rather devote more time to processing and analyzing the new information.

The Doodling Effect

A final trick to transform and synthesize information better is to employ the “drawing effect,” discovered by Myra Fernandes at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She and her team discovered that when people were told to make quick drawings of words on a list, they were much more likely to remember those words than they were if they only wrote those words down multiple times.

Even taking four seconds to draw a doodle was shown to be superior to looking at a picture of the words, or imagining a picture of the words internally. Drawing by hand has a major effect on memory recall; while producing a visual representation activates a different part of the brain than mere recognition, this also functions on the same principle as before – the more you chew on and manipulate information and have to reimagine it, the better you know it.

Even for more complex, abstract concepts, drawing a picture helped people recall the meanings of those words more than reading and rereading the definition. Drawing necessitates transforming that information into a new format, which requires a certain degree of understanding and ability to manipulate. The arm movements, the visual representation of the final product, and the conceptual process of deciding what to draw all seemed to play into encoding memory, and tests isolating these factors all showed lower retention than when all these parts of the process were made available to learners.

Better yet, the quality of the drawing didn’t seem to matter at all. Even drawings that were almost indecipherable produced an equivalent benefit to memory – especially in the elderly, who often have trouble recalling things they write down, but remember their drawings just as easily as the young. Remember, it just has to be transformed into something that has meaning to you.

If you wanted to utilize the drawing effect while learning about photosynthesis, you could draw a plant, the sun, and draw lines from the sun to the plant to represent energy coming from the sun to be converted into food within the plant. Not only does this make the cycle of photosynthesis exceedingly clear and comprehensible within three seconds of looking at the drawing, it forces synthesis.

In short, taking a few seconds to doodle information to accompany your notes is a fantastic way to make sure your brain is encoding the information you’re studying along even more synapses than writing alone would allow. Doodle as simple or complex as you want; the mere fact that you are attempting to create a visual thing is a far deeper level of information transformation that makes the difference.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the value of mind maps in this context. Mind maps are visual representations of notes that show relationships.

Creating a mind map is simple and very instinctual. Like the memory tree above, the first step is coming up with a central idea or theme: “tomato sauces,” “repairing a car transmission,” “British heraldry,” “the Marvel Comics universe.” Literally any broad subject you can think of is fine to put in the center.

From there, you draw lines as branches to subordinate subjects relating to your theme. For example, if you’re working on tomato sauces, you could put out initial branches that refer to sauces of particular cuisines – “Italian,” “Mexican,” “Spanish,” “Indian,” “American,” and so forth.

The idea is to keep on drawing branches that connect to the larger ideas. For example, under “Italian,” you could list specific types of tomato sauces that originate from Italy: “marinara,” “puttanesca,” “Bolognese,” “Arrabbiata,” and so forth. Under each sauce, you can draw branches to specific ingredients, cooking tactics, good wine pairings – there really is no limit to what you can categorize with a mind map.

The organizational aspect of mind maps is another way they can reinforce memory. Relationships, connections, hierarchies, and associations are easy to represent in a mind map. And as we just discussed, visually representing relationships and associations with a certain element increases the chance that we’ll remember it.

The 50-50 Rule

Finally, employing the 50-50 rule can help you transform and synthesize the information you learn. The 50-50 rule is when you spend half the time you have to study consuming information, and the other half interacting processing it – in other words, what this first pillar of self-learning has been about. This latter half is where learning actually occurs, so make sure that squandering your time on repetitive re-consumption doesn’t move the needle. This entire first pillar is really an ode to the 50-50 rule.

Learning isn’t something that happens when we passively encounter information; it happens when we are thinking about and communicating our knowledge with others. If you’re going to err on the 50-50 rule, at least spend more time explaining and processing information than spending extra time reading or listening to someone share information with you.

If you have four hours to study a new subject in a book you have, you should be spending two hours reading that book and the next two hours processing and chewing on it. The steps in the Peter method or in the Structured Analysis method from earlier can help. What’s important is to dig below the surface and understand the classic journalistic questions (who, what, where, when, why, how).

If you’re lost for how to continue chewing and working with the information instead of mindless repetition, a tried and true method is to teach it to yourself. Of course, you’re not really teaching it, but you’re going through the mental exercise of teaching.

It’s been said that if you can’t communicate what you know in simple terms, you don’t really know it. The longer you have to struggle to explain something, the less clear the big picture is for you. For the purposes of the 50-50 rule, you shouldn’t be able to convey the information only to people who have equal knowledge and intellectual prowess to yourself. The real test of knowledge is being able to explain what you know to children in terms simple enough for them to comprehend.

You should be able to generalize enough but make distinctions that matter. This prevents you from hiding behind barely understood jargon, and will force you to gain true mastery of a topic. For instance, using the word “desalinize” if you are trying to explain the process of “desalinization” would probably indicate that you don’t really know what the original term means.

While preparing to teach, it will become apparent that there are gaps in your knowledge. There will be important details or even entire processes that you won’t quite grasp well enough to explain. This is an invaluable process of discovery! When this happens, that tells you exactly where you need to go back and study more thoroughly what you’re learning so that you can truly master the information. Once you can communicate information simply and thoroughly in a way even children can understand, you’ll know that you truly understand the subject you’re studying.

Start with preparing an explanation and summary for a five-year-old. This will be simplistic and generalized, intentionally leaving out certain points that could be confusing. This might follow the formula of “X, Y, and Z, but not A.” Arguably, this explanation is the most difficult because it requires the greatest overall understanding to boil things down to simplicity.

Then move to an explanation for a fifteen-year-old. This will be a bit more complex, and you will have more freedom to explain nuance and subtleties. You still have to keep things general for a teenager. This will sound more like “X, Y, and Z, but sometimes not X, sometimes A, and sometimes P.” Finally, move to an explanation for a twenty-five-year-old. This is a fully formed adult who can grasp deeper and complex concepts, as well as relate them to other knowledge they already possess.

This is the easiest step because it is likely to be how you explain things to yourself. What you say here is not as important as how it contrasts to what you say to the hypothetical five-year-old.

If you go through the process of actually constructing explanations for all three levels, it will get easier, and you will find that the hard work (including the discovery that you know less than you thought) is done in the first and second levels. You can also do this whole process in reverse and start with the most complex explanation, and then keep simplifying to the point where you hit a roadblock in your understanding.