Taking Better Notes

I’m a doodler. I always have been.

It’s a trait that’s put me in the hot seat—“Are we boring you?”—but one I strongly suspected helped me understand my notes better than I would have without my sketches.

Some researchers suspect doodling may help the brain remain active by engaging its “default networks”—regions that maintain a baseline of activity in the cerebral cortex when outside stimuli are absent, the Lancet study says. People who were encouraged to doodle while listening to a list of people’s names being read were able to remember 29% more of the information on a surprise quiz later, according to a 2009 study in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The Power of the Doodle: Improve Your Focus and Memory

From personal experience, I know I can often see my sketches when thinking of the notes, and the drawings act like great bookmarks when quickly flipping through a notebook. The idea that it’s building extra neural pathways is beyond my pay grade, but feels right to me.

Aside from the obvious issue that users staring at a computer screen are bound to be distracted by a notification or a flashing icon, the idea that laptop note takers do worse than good-old pen and paper doesn’t really surprise me.

…the simple act of verbatim note taking encouraged by laptops could ultimately result in impaired learning. “Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears,” said Mueller and Oppenheimer.

What You Miss When You Take Notes on Your Laptop

One of the biggest advances the touch-screen revolution brought us was direct(ish) manipulation of interface. It removes a layer of abstraction brought on by the mouse. I touch here on the screen and it does something.

I’d bet there’s something very similar going on in this study. When I type, the connection between what I’m writing and how I’m writing is tenuous. The movements are small—nearly identical for each letter—and other than a different finger there’s nothing really different in typing a ‘Z’ vs a ‘P’.

Writing and doodling are a more direct interaction. Each letter takes different motions. There’s a sense of space and layout needed to write in a straight line. We’re doing the processing—it’s no wonder it keeps our brains active.

As we get more and more digital and the tools get better, faster and more accurate, I’m always a little happy to know there’s still a place and reason for pen and paper.

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