This Super Simple Trick Has A "Powerful Influence" On Your Memory, According To A New Study

A drawing used to illustrate the problems of understanding, recognition, and communication for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Stephen Magrath/Wellcome Collection/CC0 1.0v

It's often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. And it seems that old idiom is also good advice if you're cramming for exams or trying to learn a new language.

A new study, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, has found that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” when used as a tool to help the retention or retrieval of information in the memory, something the researchers have dubbed the “Drawing Effect.”

In fact, their experiments showed that simply doodling down information was the most effective of all memory-boosting techniques, compared to other methods that involve writing notes and mental visualization.

“These experiments suggest that using transcription as a note-taking method to retain newly learned information is not the most effective practice and that creating drawings of information is a viable, and much more efficacious, mnemonic strategy,” the study authors write.

First, psychologists from the University of Waterloo in Canada asked participants to reel off a list of over 30 words in a particular order, a bit like that shopping list game you might have played as a kid. If the guinea pigs were asked to draw the items beforehand, rather than write out the list or mentally visualize it, they were consistently able to recall more words.

They then wanted to delve deeper into the memory-solidifying qualities of drawing using more complex information. They gave participants 60 seconds to either write the definition of “spore” or “isotope” or to draw an image representing that concept. Just like the list game, drawing the information was far more efficient than note-taking.

So, why would drawing have this curiously beneficial effect on memory?

“We propose that drawing improves memory by encouraging a seamless integration of elaborative, motoric, and pictorial components of a memory trace,” the study reads. 

“That is, to transfer a word into a drawn visual representation, one must elaborate on its meaning and semantic features, engage in the actual hand movements needed for drawing (motor action), and visually inspect one’s created picture (pictorial processing).

“We argue that the mechanism driving the drawing effect is one that promotes the seamless integration of these codes, or modes of representation, into one cohesive memory trace, and it is this that facilitates later retrieval of the studied words.”

The research is much more than just some helpful advice for cramming students (although that's no doubt appreciated too). The researchers also took their work to a retirement home and tested it out on a group of senior citizens with dementia. Lo and behold, they found that the “Drawing Effect” also significantly improved the seniors' ability to remember and recall a number of words.

[H/T: BPS Research Digest]

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