Joanna Lumley, like writer Heather Harris, favours floral doodles – the pointed petals hint at a warm heart behind a prickly defensiveness

Picture Perfect

16th September 2016

Heather Harris investigates the positive benefits of one of her worst habits

“My name is Heather Harris, and I doodle.” Over everything.

As a nine-year-old, it was in permanent marker on my grandma’s new tablecloth as I waited for my fish fingers (that got me grounded for a week). At 35, it was on my desk during our weekly briefing when I worked in the – newly opened and therefore graffiti-free – corporate headquarters at British Airways. That got me threatened with a formal warning.

It’s a lifelong habit, which, at the age of 52, I’m still struggling to keep under control.

And I don’t even know I’m doing it. Sometimes, after a lengthy phone interview, I look down and see my entire notepad is covered with shorthand interspersed with enough flowers and bumble bees to fill Kew Gardens – twice over.

That’s what I draw – and always have, ever since I first put pen to paper (and furniture, and walls and even clothing). It could be worse, of course. It could be skulls and screaming faces, which my son scrawled all over his text books during that brief stressful hormonal period between – well, in his case – 13 and 16.

But even that, according to a recent study by the University of Plymouth, is positive. Their research found that those who are never without pencil and paper are more focused than the rest of the population. ‘Doodlers actually remember more than non-doodlers when asked to retain tediously delivered information.’

As psychologist and study organiser Jackie Andrade explains, “We separated 40 participants into two groups. Each had to then listen to a 2.5 minute tape, which we warned them was rather dull. One group was asked to shade in some little squares and circle on a piece of paper while they listened. The other group were told to do nothing.”

And the results were significant (teachers take note!). The doodlers recalled 7.5 pieces of information (out of 16) from the tape – 29% more than the non-doodlers who recalled 5.8 facts.The conclusion is that when you doodle you don’t daydream (ironic, as for years I’ve been told off for doing just that, as I decorated the nearest surface in foliage).

“Daydreaming actually demands a lot of brain-processing power,” Jackie continues, “as it leads from one subject to another. Doodling, in contrast, forces your brain to expand just enough energy to stop you daydreaming, but not so much that you don’t pay attention.”

What the study didn’t show was whether the particular designs you doodle make a difference to your level of focus. But that’s a whole new chapter in the psychologists’ (well-scribbled-on) handbook. As Ruth Rostron, professional handwriting analyst, explains, “We tend to doodle when we’re bored or stressed. Because of this we’re usually only half-conscious of what we’re drawing – which means our inner preoccupations surface on the paper.”

It’s a great way to work out what your youngsters might be thinking or feeling. (Let’s face it; they’re not going to tell you, are they?…). Essentially, Ruth says, “emotional people who want harmony and crave affection tend to use rounded shapes and curved lines. Down-to-earth practical types tend to use straight lines and squares. Determined people will use corners, zigzags and triangles while more hesitant people use light, sketchy strokes.”
And there was I thinking we were all just having a scribble.

Asking specifically about my own habit, I was delighted to learn that soft, rounded petals around a circular flower centre suggest that I’m amiable and family-centric. “If the petals are pointy, you are hiding a warm heart behind a prickly defensiveness, and if you doodle a bunch of perky looking flowers you are likely to be sociable. Drooping flower heads indicate you’re burdened with worry!”

Which, all in all, really sums me up. With an added sting in the tail, presumably, from my accompanying bumble bees.

Ruth also adds that parents of teenagers should look out for their offspring carving out or inking their first name or initial of their Christian name – “This indicates a desire to break away from the family and do their own thing!” – while a spider’s web symbolises being trapped, or the desire to entice someone into a relationship or situation.

Despite all this modern day analysis of our scribblings, the word doodle actually first appeared in the early 17th century, and meant a fool or simpleton. Historically, the word was also associated with young children, because their lack of hand-eye coordination made it difficult for them to keep their colouring attempts within the lines and their drawings neat and recognisable. However, as the modern world has become increasingly stressful (according to the Mental Health Foundation 59% of adults in Britain say they are more stressed today than they were five years ago) more and more adults and teenagers have been drawn to the therapeutic powers of doodling and the more exacting art of colouring in.

Our French friends were the first to join up the dots and see how calming it could be, and by 2014 adult colouring books were outselling cookery books across the channel. Now Amazon and Waterstones have sharpened up their act in the UK and increased their range to keep up with demand.
Richard Merritt, author of the Creative Therapy Colouring Book, explains the attraction: “When you’re colouring you’re not really thinking about anything else – no apps, no noise – you can almost go back to being a kid again”.

Cynthia Riviere, who set up a Facebook group of over 1,000 adult colourers, agrees. “I realise that colouring makes my headaches go away. I concentrate, my breathing slows down and I move into a deep calm.”

If only my parents and employer had been able to feel this same sense of calm when I innocently doodled on their property, all those years ago. Now I feel vindicated. Along with other famous doodlers – including Jose Mourinho, Bill Nighy, Sir Ben Kingsley, Joanna Lumley and Twiggy, who all contributed their artistic efforts for Epilepsy Action’s National Doodle Day, a fund raising initiative held earlier this year – I can hold my head (and pencil) up high and declare myself an incurable scribbler. And a highly focused and stress free one at that. I recommend it. Just pick your surfaces carefully.

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