Posted on August 25, 2015
Lately I’ve run across several ads for doodle coloring books, not to speak of articles about the act of doodling like this one.
Being a veteran doodler myself, having the subject come wafting through the noosphere caught my attention. A long time ago I reassured my Mindport cohorts that my doodling during staff meetings was a sign that I was listening, and not that I was tuned out. I explained, if my hands are busy my brain retains more of what I hear. As a young student I invariably used to take some odd object to class to fiddle with during lectures. It could be as simple as a clothespin, paper clip, or a frame of 35mm camera film. The teachers who confiscated these “toys” didn’t understand that keeping my hands occupied helped me focus, rather than the other way around.
Doodling, as I eventually discovered, provided a better means to focus because it’s easier to do it surreptitiously (they think you’re taking notes), not to speak of the fact that you sometimes have interesting little drawings to show for you efforts when the meeting is over. At one point I filled a whole sketchbook with doodles made during a weekly reading group. We took turns reading short stories or chapters to each other. When I wasn’t reading, I entertained my restless hands with doodling in a bound notebook.
There’s a problem, however, with the term doodling. It doesn’t give the act enough dignity and respect, as the Atlantic article cited above implies. It’s true that the visual affect of many doodles is nothing to write home about, but putting your brain in graphic mode, so to speak, is one way of taming what meditators call “monkey mind;” that restless chatter the mind engages in when not busy with a focused task. That might explain why, for me, at least, it’s easier to absorb verbally-delivered material when my hands are occupied by doodling. Under those conditions, the chatter of my monkey mind isn’t running interference to verbally delivered information coming from outside. Why doodling or other manual activity interferes with internal chatter but not information coming from outside, I can’t explain, but that’s my experience.
Not too long ago I decided that what I’d heretofore referred to as doodling would be better dignified by the term “drawing,” even though it’s by no means what we normally consider formal drawing. I have done some of the latter. In fact, when I was in my late 20s I abandoned photography for several years and set about learning representational drawing. I never became very good at it, but could hack out a likeness to a landscape or a face if I put my mind to it. Interestingly it seemed to have magically enabled at least two abilities that I hadn’t possessed previous to my drawing stint: I found that I could visualize and build 3 dimensional objects in my head, and that I could suddenly appreciate photographic work whose merits had once mystified me. The former ability has been essential to creating exhibits for Mindport. And the latter has hugely enriched my appreciation of all visual artwork, not to speak of increasing my general visual sensitivity, which reflects in the photography I hang in Mindport’s gallery.
My conclusion is this: It’s a mistake to eliminate art and music education in the schools, or to consider them less important that training in math or science. We Americans have a tendency to assume that any aspect of life or creative work that doesn’t hit us over the head isn’t worth paying attention to. The fact is, the creative mind is a holistic affair. We may create arbitrary divisions between science, technology, art, language and music, but they’re all inextricably woven in our brains and we do ourselves and our culture a great disservice by ruling any of these disciplines trivial or non-essential to a healthy society and economy. We hope the richness of visitors’ experience at Mindport will lend confirmation to this idea. At least one popular exhibit, “Road Blocks,” is a direct product of my years of doodling experience. Come and check it out, along with the many other exhibits we have to offer.