Give Your Memory More to Draw Upon

Drawing pictures isn't just good for art's sake; a new study suggests doodling can enhance memory functions, especially in older adults.


When was the last time you drew a picture? If you haven’t picked up a pencil and paper since you were in school, you could be missing out.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo have shown that drawing can enhance memory and the retention of new information, particularly in older adults. The research, led by Myra Fernandes and colleagues in the Department of Psychology, tested memory recall of 24 undergraduate students and 24 adults over the age of 65 who had normal cognition.

Each participant was shown 30 words, such as ‘truck’ and ‘pear’, and instructed to draw or write each word. Working within a 40-second time limit, participants were invited to write or draw each word repeatedly, add detail to the image or embellish the word by listing physical attributes related to the item. In the next phase, participants were given two minutes to recall as many of the words as they could.

Across all groups, participants showed better retention with drawing over writing, recalling almost double the number of drawn words.

The researchers explain that drawing facilitates retention better than re-writing notes, visualization exercises or passively looking at images. At least in part this is because drawing requires elaboration on the meaning of the word and translating that meaning into a new form: a picture.

Many young students are reprimanded for doodling, but making a point to draw images relevant to their learning objectives could help them prepare for their exams. Even without formal tests to pass, this strategy could also benefit older adults who struggle to retain information as they age.

Interestingly, although older adults performed worse than younger participants at remembering written words, they were able to recall a similar number of drawn words.

“We’re really encouraged by these results,” says Melissa Meade, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience who conducted the study with Fernandes.

While critical brain structures involved in memory deteriorate with age, the areas involved in representing images and pictures mostly remain intact, even in dementia. This could have exciting implications for therapeutic interventions to help dementia patients hold on to valuable memories as their disease progresses.

While there is still work to be done to understand whether drawing complex concepts will bring real-world benefits, the simplicity of the intervention and potential to dramatically improve memory is exciting. Plus, in particularly good news for the less artistically inclined, the quality of the drawings had no impact on memory recall.

Time to sharpen those pencils.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise