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Why do we doodle?

Senseless scribbling or individual insight?

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Why do we doodle?

Asked by Leanne Ward of New York City

We often do it. We often don't realise it. Often, when caught doing it, we are embarrassed to have to explain it.

Surprisingly, these nonsense scribbles we leave behind on notepads, paper margins, desktops, walls and anywhere else where pen can leave a trace may have meaning.

In fact, for one US psychologist, doodling and what doodles mean has been the chief focus of his lifetime work. Dr Robert Burns, formerly the director of the Institute for Human Development at the University of Seattle, studied doodles and used them to diagnose emotional problems of clinical patients.

Dr Burns and other clinicians and researchers in the field of behavioral art therapy, maintain that the shapes and symbols we draw can reveal much about our state of mind.

As Dr Burns first stated back in 1991 in an article in the March/April In Health, "even the most innocent doodle may carry messages from the unconscious". For example, a commonly-drawn doodle is a tree. Trees represent growth and life. A full, leafy tree with a wide trunk suggests someone who is vital, energetic, and with a strong will to live. Very narrow trees with leafless branches often appear in the drawings of the frail elderly, indicating that their spirit, their will to live, may be waning.

According to Dr Burns, "if you find yourself doodling pictures of houses, you probably place a high value on shelter and security". Other symbols too are strong indications of things which an individual values most. For example, numbers and dollar signs indicate a preoccupation with money. Planes, cars, ships, and other vehicles may indicate a desire to travel, alter relationships, or change one's life.

Indeed, the list goes on and on. Ladders can be symbols of tension and precarious balance. Light bulbs and images of the sun suggest feelings of warmth and light. Squares, triangles, and circles are the sign of a logical, analytical mind.

None other than Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are the two pioneers of symbol interpretation in psychology - the co-fathers of "doodleology", if you will.

According to Dr Burns, the analysis of doodling should be part of the clinical procedures of every psychologist or psychiatrist. He notes: "The messages are there, after all. No one's surprised that an electroencephalogram can chart brain waves using a stylus attached by way of electrodes to the brain. The only difference with doodling is that we use a pen attached to the brain by nerves and muscles."

Doodling becomes a kind of visual free association, a way of tapping the deep reservoir of self-knowledge contained not in words but in images. But what of the claim that the study of doodles is unimportant since there is no way of knowing what the scribbles symbolise to the scribbler - if anything at all?

Dr Burns counters that it is only after careful study of doodles over many years and from many different individuals that the patterns of doodle symbolism and their significance emerge. He adds: "Even at their simplest, the idle jottings we repeat in the margins of our notebooks can evoke childhood memories and associations that provide clues even to our obsessions. Stars, for instance, show up all the time in the drawings of emotionally deprived children. Stars are what we wish upon. People who fill their doodles with stars may be longing for something they were deprived of, like love or affection."

So take it from this doodle dandy - and you thought your doodles only meant...

Do men and women doodle differently

Asked by Leanne Ward of New York City

Dr Burns claims that gender is a factor in doodling patterns. He maintains that: "Men tend to doodle geometric shapes while women are more likely to doodle human figures and faces. Physical features, especially any that are abnormally large or small, carry special meaning. Very large eyes suggest vigilance, for instance, or in extreme cases, paranoia. Very small eyes or no eyes at all, suggest someone who doesn't want to see. Long arms symbolize reaching out. An absence of arms means withdrawal."

Do our doodles reveal sexual thoughts?

Asked by Leanne Ward of New York City

Dr Burns claims that one's relative preoccupation with sex also shows itself through one's doodles. Dr Burns observes that "a preoccupation with sexuality usually shows up in figures whose genital areas are emphasised and heavily shaded or in the repeated use of classic sexual symbols such as snakes, candles, or darts striking a target".

Doomed if you do, doomed if you doodle

In January 2005, doodles found on the desk of British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Number 10 Downing Street were discussed by psychologists and handwriting experts as to their meaning. According to the BBC of 30 January 2005, newspaper stories contained phrases such as "struggling to concentrate" and "not a natural leader". It then emerged that a mistake had been made. The doodles were in fact drawn by a visitor to Number 10 - Bill Gates.

JFK and the 9/11 conspiracy doodle

The doodles and notes of US president John F Kennedy are released periodically by the John F Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. One hundred and thirty five pages were released in 2004. Subsequent historical events, long after JFK's assassination in 1963, give one JFK doodle a special significance: On one page a small circle was written with the numbers "9/11" contained within. Just to the lower left on the same page is the word "conspiracy" - and it is underlined. Conspiracy buffs, take note!

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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