By Abigail Cain
Illustration by Amber Sausen, Piazza della Repubblica, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
A few weeks ago, Wisconsin-based architect Amber Sausen was scrolling through her old iPhone photos when she found herself momentarily perplexed: “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t remember taking that at all. Huh. What was I thinking? What was I trying to memorialize in this photograph?’”
But Sausen, an avid sketcher, says she’s never had such difficulty recalling the circumstances surrounding a particular drawing. “I can open up a sketchbook from when I was in school and I can remember it exactly: ‘Oh, it was really hot in the sun, but it was cool in the shade, and I was coming down with a cold….’”
And while not everyone may boast Sausen’s impressive level of recall, she’s not alone in experiencing a powerful link between drawing and memory. Research in recent years has found that drawing, more than writing or other retention strategies, is a highly effective means of boosting memory.
Take, for example, a 2016 study led Jeffrey D. Wammes, now a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Yale University. He and his team observed a phenomenon they termed the “drawing effect”—that illustrating a word’s meaning always leads to the highest levels of memory recall.
Photo by Amber Sausen, at Michigan Avenue at the Congress Hotel, Chicago, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
For their initial experiment, Wammes and his team presented participants with a list of easy-to-visualize words, like “kite” or “peanut.” Half the group was instructed to write the word repeatedly; the other half, to draw a picture of the object it represented. After a short “filler task” to clear their minds, they were given a test that asked them to recall as many words as possible from the original list.
In later versions of this experiment, rather than writing the word over and over again, half of the participants were asked to mentally visualize the object described by that word; to look at pre-existing pictures of the object; or to write a list of its physical characteristics. Every time, the half of the group that drew pictures of the words had the best recall—in some cases, they could remember twice as many words as those assigned a different task. Even reducing the time allotted for drawing from 40 seconds to four didn’t change the results.
Wammes theorizes that his findings might have something to do with the multi-sensory nature of the activity. Drawing incorporates (and potentially integrates) three distinct types of experience: semantic (the internal generation process that allows you to translate a word into a series of visual characteristics you can draw), motor (the planned movement of your hand as you draw), and visual (watching your drawing appear on the page). These various components are likely linked in some way inside of our minds, said Wammes, “so if you retrieve one small detail or component, that might help you reconstruct that full representation of what you studied.” Reading or writing silently, on the other hand, engages fewer senses, and thus offers fewer details with which to retrieve the memory.
Illustration by Sunni Brown for Kelly Services, 2012.
A more recent paper by Wammes, currently in review, attempts to determine which of these three components—semantic, visual, or motor—contributes the most to drawing’s memory-boosting properties. His findings indicate that the visual element is the least powerful recall tool; motor and semantic are far more significant when it comes to establishing a lasting memory.
The idea for these experiments, Wammes explained, took root during his undergraduate years. A friend of his had begun to take notes that incorporated drawings rather than the traditional lines of text, “and, at least for him, it turned his educational career around a little bit. It helped him learn a lot better than any other sort of method of note-taking.”
This strategy—sometimes dubbed “sketchnoting”—is one that’s also preached by Oakland-based “doodle consultant” Sunni Brown as a way to increase retention during lectures or meetings. “The auditory channel and the written channel are sort of competing, like if you’re trying to write a paper while the radio’s on,” she explained. “That’s why traditional note-taking is really ridiculous, because it’s anathema for what the brain needs to thrive.”
Brown’s creative consultancy, Sunni Brown Ink, has coached companies such as Dell and Zappos in “applied visual thinking”—that is, the power of doodling to unlock creativity and boost memory. Sometimes, as with note-taking, these drawings relate directly to the information you’re trying to retain. But even unconscious doodling can enhance memory. By “mindlessly” doodling, “you’re helping your brain to stay present in the meeting,” Brown noted. “That’s one of its superpowers that people have been using for millennia.”
Science backs this up. In a 2009 study led by psychologist Jackie Andrade, participants were asked to listen to a boring, rambling voicemail message. The half that were encouraged to doodle were able to recall 29 percent more information than those who simply sat and tried to focus on the recording.
Anecdotally, Brown said, “I’ve known people who can actually re-trace their doodles and it conjures up what they were hearing at the time. Almost like a groove in a record.”
Sometimes, however, the associated memory is so vivid that it doesn’t require tracing at all. Sausen, the architect, is also the current president of Urban Sketchers—a global community of artists who meet regularly to draw the city where they live. At her chapter meetups in Madison, they often pass around sketchbooks at the end of the day.
“There’s always an ancillary story,” Sausen said. “A lot of time, it’s not the story of the object or the building that they were sketching, but of the experience of creating that image.” She recounted a particularly dramatic tale from a fellow Urban Sketcher, who—during a trip to Cambodia—watched as a monkey strolled up and began drinking his pot of ink.
“That’s not in the sketch,” she laughed. “But that’s the rich experience that is captured through the making of the sketch.”