The act of drawing something has a “massive” benefit for memory compared with writing it down

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By Emma Young

A picture is worth a thousand words…. When it comes to conveying a concept, this sentiment can certainly be true. But it may also be the case for memory. At least that’s the message from Myra Fernandes and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada – writing in Current Directions in Psychological Science, they argue that their research programme shows that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” on memory, and as a mnemonic technique, it could be particularly useful for older adults – and even people with dementia.

Fernandes and her colleagues first established what they call the “drawing effect” – getting people to draw quick pictures of words in a list (such as “truck” or “pear”) led to much better recall of those words than writing them out multiple times. Creating just a four-second drawing was also superior to imagining the items or viewing pictures of the words. 

This was proof of principle type work. The researchers next looked at whether drawing aids memory of more complex terms and concepts. They found that study participants who had a minute to draw an image representing “isotope” or “spore”, for example, were more likely to remember the meaning than people who were asked to copy out the definitions instead. “As with single words, we reasoned that drawing facilitates retention, at least in part, because it requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture),” the researchers write. 

In fact, there are various components to the process of drawing a picture of a word or concept, each of which seem to cumulatively aid memory. Getting people to trace over an existing drawing (so getting them to make relevant arm and hand movements, but not allowing personal elaboration), or to create a drawing which they were then not allowed to see (so allowing the physical movements and personal elaboration, but depriving them of the visual memory of the end result) both improved memory – but not as much as when all of these stages were allowed. “Memory scaled up as components were added to the encoding task,” the researchers note. 

Fernandes and her colleagues went on to find that although older adults performed worse than younger adults at remembering words they had learned by writing, there was no difference between the two age groups in their ability to remember words they had drawn. Encouraged by these results, the team then asked 13 people diagnosed with dementia and living in a long-term care facility to either draw or write 60 words that were read aloud by an experimenter. The results showed a “massive” memory benefit for words that had been drawn rather than written. If it can be shown that drawing also helps with other sorts of memory – for where things are kept, perhaps – this strategy could be practically useful for people with dementia.

In some cases, the patients’ drawings looked just like scribbles. But how good – or bad – the drawings were didn’t seem to matter. In fact, in most of the experiments, the researchers assessed their participants’ ability to create vivid images and also their experience at drawing, and neither was correlated with memory performance. Even people who struggle to create a stick figure should, then, get memory benefits from drawing. 

There’s still plenty of work to be done to investigate whether drawing terms, events or concepts that you want to recall can bring real-world benefits – whether in the classroom or in a care home. But this is a comprehensive set of studies, all pointing in the same direction. “Taken together, the evidence…demonstrates that drawing is a robust encoding strategy that can, and does, improve memory performance dramatically,” the researchers conclude. 

The act of drawing something has a “massive” benefit for memory compared with writing it down

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