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Always Forgetting Important Things? Here’s How to Fix That, According to Science

4 minute read

Most people, when tasked with remembering something important, jot down a note. But a 2018 study published in the journal Experimental Aging Research says there may be a better way to keep memories fresh: draw a picture.

Drawing works your brain in ways that writing alone does not, forcing it to process visual information, translate the meaning of a word into an image and carry out a physical act all at once, says study co-author Melissa Meade, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “It’s bringing online a lot of different brain regions that you wouldn’t bring online if you were just writing information out,” Meade explains. “We think this multifaceted approach of using the drawing technique benefits memory and the brain.”

And older adults may have even more to gain from this approach, Meade says. “In normal, healthy aging, you tend to see a lot of changes occurring to parts of the brain that are involved in memory functioning and language processing,” Meade says. “You don’t see as many changes occurring in regions that are involved in sensory processing of visual information”—so drawing may take advantage of these “relatively well-preserved brain regions” and boost memory.

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Meade and her supervisor, University of Waterloo psychology professor Myra Fernandes, confirmed these results in a series of experiments involving 48 adults ranging in age from college undergraduates to those in their 80s.

In the main experiment, people were directed to write down 15 words and draw pictures of 15 other words—a doodle of a boat for the word “yacht,” for instance. They then performed a filler task—classifying 60 tones as low, medium or high — to switch trains of thought and produce a clean slate from which researchers could test memory. After the filler task was complete, they were given two minutes to recall as many words as possible from the first part of the experiment.

As expected, older adults remembered fewer words overall than younger adults. But the researchers found that both age groups remembered more of the words they had drawn as opposed to the ones they had written. This finding was corroborated by two similar experiments—one that asked people to either draw or write down a list of descriptors related to certain words, and one that tested how vividly people remembered words they had either drawn or written. In every test, the researchers found that drawing was a better memorization tool, regardless of the quality of the pictures or how long they took to complete.

“Whether you’re a horrible drawer or an artist, it really doesn’t matter to the size of the benefit that you gain from drawing as opposed to writing,” Fernandes says.

Some things are easier to write than to draw; sketching the date of an appointment or a new acquaintance’s name, for example, isn’t very realistic. But Meade says there are real-world applications for the study’s findings, like creating a shopping list.

“Our tendency would, of course, be to write down the list,” Meade says. “But we’re suggesting that if you actually draw pictures of some of those things you need to pick up at the store, you’re going to be able to better remember them later on.” The strategy could also work well for students, Meade adds, since the researchers found that drawing out complex concepts, like photosynthesis, also jogs memory better than writing notes.

Perhaps the most encouraging implication for the research, however, is the potential it could hold for adults with cognitive decline. While research in this area is ongoing—and more of it is needed—Meade says preliminary findings suggest that even people who are beginning to suffer dementia-related memory loss benefit from drawing. That theory, Fernandes says, suggests that something like a photo diary, rather than a written one, may help those who are aging keep a grasp on the details of their lives.

“When they remember any information, it tends to be information that was drawn,” Meade says. “We would really like to, in the future, have implications from this work for therapeutic interventions for dementia patients, to give them strategies to retain some of their memories that they’re losing so rapidly.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com