Doodling, Dishes and the Brain

June 18, 2009 (Updated Jun 29, 2019) by — Intended Audience: .

Digital Paintbrush Doodle, made with ArtRage on a Tablet PCA while ago I came across a fascinating piece on National Public Radio (NPR) about how doodling actually helps the brain to pay better attention (as opposed to the common assumption that it signals that the individual has completely “checked out”).1 This certainly fits with my experience, not just with doodling, but in other settings like doing the dishes or driving.2

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In undergraduate school I was unfortunately too uptight to doodle much, if at all (I would have felt too guilty for doing so), but I had thankfully loosened up considerably by graduate school and actually did doodle some with surprisingly positive results. I found that, as the NPR article discusses, I was better able to maintain my focus on the speaker and the material, even as tiredness invited my mind to some far away place.

I’ve noticed similar things with activities like washing dishes. There are times where one part of my brain is interested in being active, while at the same time another part of me would like to think through some things or to work through relationship or emotional issues. These would seem fairly incompatible at first glance. My default approach in the past was to try to make myself sit on the couch (or someplace similar) and sort through my stuff. However, what I found repeatedly is that if a part of me wanted to be active (e.g., to get something done or accomplished) then I inevitably would make my way to my computer to work on any number of tasks. The activity oriented part of my brain was happy with that outcome, but the emotional and relational parts usually ended up neglected.

What I discovered some time ago, and this is very in keeping with the NPR article, is that there are certain activities that I can do that satisfy the activity-seeking part of me in such a way that the rest of me is freed up to concentrate on thinking through and working through whatever relational and emotional content I’m seeking to address. You may have experienced this some while driving. Assuming that you have been driving long enough that you no longer have to think about it, driving can keep you just active enough without requiring your full attention such that the more creative parts of your brain (which are also more relational, emotional and symbolic) are freed up. I have repeatedly had great ideas come to me while driving. I’m not much of a poet, but I have even written poetry while driving (which was a bit of a trick because I could not write it down, so I had to memorize it as I went).

Here is a list activities that I have found fall into the above category for me:

  • Washing dishes
  • Driving
  • Emptying the dishwasher
  • Walking
  • Doodling
  • Cleaning
  • Sorting and/or putting away laundry

I wonder what activities might work well for you?


  1. Bored? Try Doodling To Keep The Brain On Task, at NPR’s Website 
  2. Image was created on a Tablet PC with a paint program. I believe it was an older, free version of ArtRage which came with my Tablet. 

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