I recently went through a bad spell of jetlag and was shocked how much it affected my memory. I couldn’t come up with the right word, and had a hard time remembering people’s names—I even greeted a fellow mom at my daughter’s school with my own name. Whoo boy. Thankfully my memory isn’t usually so spotty, but I was heartened to see new research about a simple way to boost recall: drawing.
In a study that was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, scientists at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that drawing a picture of information is the best way to enhance memory of it later.
The study gave participants a list of easily drawn words, such as “apple,” and they were given 40 seconds to either sketch out the word’s concept or to jot it down over and over. Then, they were given a “filler” task before being asked to recall as many words as they could. Participants who had drawn their words recalled twice as many terms as those who had written them down, showing a distinct advantage to the technique.
“We pitted drawing against a number of other known encoding strategies, but drawing always came out on top,” wrote the study’s lead author, Jeffrey Wammes, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology. “We believe that the benefit arises because drawing helps to create a more cohesive memory trace that better integrates visual, motor and semantic information.”
When the researchers did variations on the experiment, having the participants draw the images over and over, or add more visual detail to the written letters, such as doodling, the results were still the same: Drawing simply led to better recall than writing words.
If you’re worried that your drawing ability may lead to wonky sketches rather than Rembrandt-level draftsmanship, don’t be concerned. “The quality of the drawings people made did not seem to matter, suggesting that everyone could benefit from this memory strategy, regardless of their artistic talent. In line with this, we showed that people still gained a huge advantage in later memory, even when they had just 4 seconds to draw their picture,” wrote Wammes. If you have a piece of paper and a pen, you can make use of this powerful memory tool—no art classes necessary.
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!