Drawing Pictures: A Memory Technique That Works?

I wanted to draw attention to a recent New York Times article describing how drawing pictures can give your memory a boost. Here’s the gist:

“Picture a cashew. Now pick up your pen and draw a little sketch of one, then put the drawing face down somewhere you can’t see it. We’ll come back to it later … You’ve probably guessed by now that we’re playing a little ad hoc memory game. There is no shortage of mnemonic tricks you can use to remember things, but the three-act technique of picturing something in your mind, putting pen to paper to draw it, then looking at your drawing is a powerful memory trick that outperforms other “strong” mnemonic strategies when it comes to memory, according to a study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.”

Why might this technique work?

“In that 2016 paper, they wrote that the act of drawing things out encourages “a seamless integration of semantic, visual and motor aspects of a memory trace.” Further, Dr. Wammes said, picturing something then physically drawing it forces us to focus on the defining aspects of an object — say, the differences between a tiger and a lion — which allows us to better recall it.”

This first theory brings to mind a concept in cognitive psychology called “dual coding.” Essentially, when you encode information using two (or more) modes, such as verbal and visual, the memory embeds itself more strongly. You have multiple retrieval pathways which can access the memory, improving recall. Visual mnemonics, such as memory palaces, can be grouped under this umbrella strategy of dual coding. Mental images are layered onto verbal information, providing dual coding. The author in fact goes on to reference memory palaces as a similar concept, linking a 2016 piece The Times published on palaces.

Ok, fine. If you’re familiar with visual mnemonics, these ideas are probably intuitive. As the cliché goes, psychology is great for using fancy terminology to tell you things you already know. A practical question remains: When using memory palaces for long-term information, should I be drawing my images? In the past, I haven’t. I simply write my mnemonics into my Anki cards using concise descriptions. You can read an example here. I’ve felt this to be the most painless, efficient way of cataloging mnemonics without them bogging you down. Might I be missing out on an additional mode of coding? Indeed, in Experiments 3 and 4, the paper authors found the memory boost of drawing could not be explained solely by elaborative encoding or visual imagery. They even make a case for the efficiency of drawing by showing, in Experiment 6, that drawing effects persisted even with limited encoding times and longer word lists. Whether these effects, which dealt with recall of word lists, translate into benefits for educationally representative materials (eg, learning a textbook chapter) remains unexplored for now. But it’s got me thinking.

I also wonder: How might the effects of this drawing strategy be modulated by combining it with spaced retrieval practice? Would its benefits be attenuated when all experimental groups are getting the boost of spaced retrieval practice? For example, acronyms—first-letter mnemonics—have found surprisingly weak support in the literature. However, authors have argued their effects may be augmented by combining them with spaced retrieval practice. Might drawing suffer the opposite fate? When everyone is employing spaced retrieval practice, might drawing’s benefits be too modest—and its implementation too inefficient—to prove useful? Maybe. Maybe not. The issue of handwriting notes versus typing them falls in a similar vein—a topic I’d like to discuss in a future post. We’ll have to see where the literature takes us. It’s an exciting time for learning scientists.

Do you draw to augment your memory? Have you integrated drawing with your Anki decks? Let us know!