If you need to remember something, you might do well to… draw it. According to a new study, drawing can be a more effective memory aid than writing and rewriting, simply looking at information, or using various other visualisation techniques.
Older adults who take up drawing could even enhance their memory, the researchers say, providing a means to rebel against the effects of ageing and the risk of conditions like Alzheimer's and dementia.
The good news for those of us who struggled in art class is that you don't actually have to be good at drawing to reap the memory benefits of doodling, according to the team from the University of Waterloo in Canada.
"We found that drawing enhanced memory in older adults more than other known study techniques," says one of the researchers, Melissa Meade.
"We're really encouraged by these results and are looking into ways that it can be used to help people with dementia, who experience rapid declines in memory and language function."
The researchers got together 48 different participants – half aged around 20, half aged around 80 – and asked them to go through a series of exercises. When shown a series of words, they had to either write out the word, write out the physical attributes it suggested, or draw what it represented.
After a break, the volunteers were asked to remember as many words as they could. Younger adults were better at recall than older adults, but both groups remembered more of the words they had drawn representations of.
"Drawing pictures is such a simple task, and it can easily be implemented in everyday life to improve memory," Meade told Brittany Wong at HuffPost.
"For example, drawing a picture of some groceries you need to pick up later or the meal you are planning to make will result in that information being remembered much better later on than if it were written."
The researchers think drawing might be so effective because it involves multiple ways of representing the same information: visual, spatial, verbal, semantic (the meanings of the words) and motoric (the physical act of drawing).
In other words, it's keeping more parts of the brain active and involved in storing the particular memory. (Perhaps there's a way to give it a go the next time you're cramming for an exam.)
If you're wondering about the young and old split, the study was following up on previous research that showed the benefits of drawing on memory in young adults. These new experiments were designed to test if the same could be said of older adults too.
As our information retention abilities tend to decline over time, that means drawing could be a way of maintaining a good quality of life as we get older. The researchers say it might even help dementia patients.
"We think that drawing is particularly relevant for people with dementia because it makes better use of brain regions that are still preserved, and could help people experiencing cognitive impairment with memory function," says Meade.
"Our findings have exciting implications for therapeutic interventions to help dementia patients hold on to valuable episodic memories throughout the progression of their disease."
The research has been published in Experimental Aging Research.