Recent Blog Articles

Harvard Health Blog

The “thinking” benefits of doodling

December 15, 2016

About the Author

photo of Srini Pillay, MD

Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Srini Pillay, M.D. ( is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Part-Time) at Harvard Medical School. After graduating as the overall top medical student in South Africa, he completed his residency in psychiatry at McLean Hospital—Harvard’s largest freestanding … See Full Bio
View all posts by Srini Pillay, MD


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.


Richard Howlin
December 26, 2016

A similar technique was used as a diagnostic tool by child analyst Donald Winnicott at Paddington Hospital. In his writings it is referred to as the “squiggle technique”. In this application, the child is asked to draw a spontaneous squiggle (doodle) on paper and Winnicott would then add something ( semi spontaneous) to the child’s effort. This continues back & forth in an attempt to elucidate unconscious or pre-conscious images from the child.

Richard Howlin PhD
The Chelsea Center for Autism

Dammi W
December 22, 2016

I find I am doodling when I keep talking with someone over the phone for a lengthy period. It could be a family member, a close friend or even just an aquintance. It always happens when the conversation runs for a long time. Not when it is just a short duration call.
Once l start doodling I would continue when I am listening to the person at the other end and also when I myself am talking. It could be any thing, flowers, geometrical shapes, or a word or a phrase that struck my mind during the conversation. This never distracts me from the conversation. After the call is finished I can recall what has been talked about.
I wonder this is the same as the process discribed in Dr Pillay ‘s article.

December 21, 2016

I noticed that you said, “Doodling (a form of fidgeting) ” which really rung a bell. As a long time Community leader on an ADHD forum – fidgeting has become one of the go-to-strategies to help those with ADHD in the classroom. See this link –
I might also add (as a long time educator) that there have been many studies which have shown that during note taking, if you try and express the notes in a pictorial form, you will remember them much better. And, of course, that has a lot to do with using different modalities.
Anyway, good article, I will be sharing this with my ADHD friends.

Chris B
December 20, 2016

I am often in long meetings about satellites – interesting broadly, but technically overwhelming. I tend to draw houses and dogs. Wondering if I switched to doodling the topic that was being discussed, if it might have an even greater retention impact.

King Harvey
December 20, 2016

For years I have ‘doodled’ with color sticks on a watercolor paper pad while listening to live jazz music and find it a wonderful brain exercise and relaxation. I am provided sustained fascination with swirls of primary and secondary colors that are distinct and also merged into new color arrangements as the ongoing music propels the muse along. Each non-figurative hour-to-hour-and-a-half long composition, (now numbering over a thousand), is spontaneous, done largely without pre-thought and conveys to me its own sense of completeness and thus satisfaction.

December 19, 2016

I always do it when I’m in a meeting and I manage to get everything discussed. Thanks

W. Scott Peterson, M.D.
December 19, 2016

Primary process thinking and secondary process thinking are well known. I would suggest that these studies of doodling are closely related.

Srini Pillay
December 19, 2016

That’s a great reframe! Thank you!

Helen Coyne-Hoerle
December 19, 2016

Having grown up in Seattle Washington and lived in the area for an additional 20 years later, I’m puzzled by the attribution of Dr. Robert Burns to the University of Seattle. Tried Google, always a test, and found no such critter. So likely it is Seattle University, from which I graduated, but Dr. Burns is not showing there on Google, perhaps because of his earlier retirement. There us an Institute of Human Development at Seattle University. Perhaps time to get the right university name down.

December 19, 2016

Yes, it works, it took me 20 years, to doodle, and every time it got a little bit bigger , to finally it was a picture , that I recognized. Than I received a photo, and found the answer. It works.

Srini Pillay
December 20, 2016

Thanks for asking me to fact-check this. The university reference is from: Other references for this include: And there are several more too. In looking into this, in earlier blogs, the reference shows up as “Seattle” (e.g. Then, in 1991, there is a reference to “Seattle Institute of Human Development” in The Washington Post ( and a similar reference in: This appears to be a private research and education foundation. He authored a book with this affiliation at: I see that “Seattle University” and UC Berkeley both have such an Institute, but I too cannot find a reference other than those above that confirm or deny this affiliation. Given the inconsistencies in report, despite no evidence of his university affiliation if any, I would agree that this might more accurately be stated as “Seattle Institute of Human Development, a private research and education foundation” Thanks again for drawing my attention to this.

Donna Krohn
December 19, 2016

very impressive I really believe it makes our mind more intent thank you

Srini Pillay
December 19, 2016

Thanks Donna. Glad that this resonates!

Commenting has been closed for this post.

Free Healthbeat Signup

Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Thanks for visiting. Don't miss your FREE gift.

The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss...from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.

BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.

Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.