No scrap of paper or empty margin is safe. Give me a pencil, some white space, and I'm doodling. Bizarre flowers bloom across my telephone message slips. Strange hieroglyphics march over my notebook pages.
Most of us doodle. According to a 1988 survey by the pen makers Faber/Castell (folks with a vested interest, to be sure), nine out of 10 people between the ages of 18 and 34 are regular doodlers. Among the over-65 set, six out of 10 people admit to the habit.
Why this urge to scribble? Nervous energy may be the simplest reason. If you're sitting through a boring lecture, doodling's not a bad way to pass the time. But the pictures we draw when our minds are elsewhere are far from mindless scribblings, says psychologist Robert C. Burns, who directs the Seattle Institute of Human Development, a private research and education foundation. Burns has devoted his career to understanding the meaning of drawings and doodles and uses them to diagnose emotional problems and understand the dynamics of troubled families. "Even the most innocent doodle may carry messages from the unconscious," says Burns.
Frankly, looking at the flowers and vines that cover my own paperwork, I have to admit that I have my doubts. But Burns and others who work in the art therapy field say that the shapes and symbols we draw can reveal a lot about our state of mind.
Say that you doodle trees, for instance. These, says Burns, are a potent symbol. "Trees represent growth and life. A full, leafy tree with a wide trunk suggests someone who is vital, energetic, 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, is dying."
If you find yourself doodling pictures of houses, you probably place a high value on shelter and security, he says. Numbers and dollar signs -- not much surprise here -- indicate a preoccupation with money. Ladders can be symbols of tension and precarious balance. Light bulbs and images of the sun suggest feelings of warmth and light. Doodles filled with squares, triangles and circles are the sign of a logical, analytical mind.
"Freud and Jung filled volumes with their interpretations of symbols," Burns points out. "The messages are there. After all, no one's surprised any more 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 or pencil 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."
Indeed, the special power of free-association drawing or doodling may lie precisely in its ability to bypass the constraints of language, controlled by the left side of the brain, in favor of the more intuitive, creative right brain.
"The left brain is constantly analyzing, trying to put things into words, trying to make sense," says Betty Edwards, professor emeritus of art at California State University, Long Beach, and author of the popular book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." "But when the right side of the brain begins to draw, the left brain says, 'Hey, it's just doodling.' As soon as it lets down its guard, all sorts of surprising things pour forth."
Even simple lines and abstract shapes eloquently convey thoughts and feelings, Edwards believes. By way of explanation, she offers a quick experiment. Take one sheet of paper and draw the concept of anger. On another, draw joy. "No clenched fists, however," she cautions. "And no rainbows. Draw the feel of these emotions, not a literal image."
Before you read further, give it a try.
Now have a look at your drawing in light of what Edwards has to say. Even though the drawings vary widely from person to person, there are some constants: "Anger is almost always shown by a dark, heavy line with sharp angles and stabbing points. Tranquillity is expressed as a horizontal line. Joy usually takes the form of light, upwardly curving lines." She might just as well have been describing the lines I'd drawn.
"Keep in mind that we have a long history of expressing ourselves in lines and images," Edwards says. "Drawing dates back to 30,000 B.C. Written language didn't begin until 25,000 years later. The language of drawing goes beyond words, beyond cultural boundaries. It's a language children use more readily than adults."
Adult doodles, says doodle analyst Burns, often have their roots in childhood experience. He tells the story of a dentist he worked with who obsessively drew totem poles. When the man explored those symbols and what memories they brought up, he linked them to an exhibit of totem poles he had visited as a young boy with his father. "It was the last time he saw his father, and one of the last times he remembered being truly happy," says Burns. "Doodling allowed him to relive that time and to explore his continuing obsession with finding his father."
But even at their simplest, the idle jottings we repeat in the margins of our notebooks can harken back to childhood and provide clues to our obsessions.
"Stars, for instance," Burns says, "show up all the time in the drawings of emotionally deprived children." Why?
"Stars are something we wish upon. People who fill their doodles with stars may be longing for something they were deprived of, like love or affection."
Men, says Burns, tend to doodle geometric shapes. 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."
Former President Ronald Reagan, according to Burns, is a frequent doodler of people -- perhaps not surprising for a man so at home with personal anecdotes. "But look closely at his figures," says Burns, "and you'll see that they almost never have necks. That indicates a bullheaded, stubborn quality. When the air controllers went on strike and Reagan threatened to fire them, you only had to look at his doodles to know he wasn't going to give in."
Perhaps. But not all experts would agree on this interpretation. Graphologist Lois Vaisman of the New School for Social Research in New York City sees hesitancy and diffidence in Reagan's wavy strokes. John F. Kennedy's presidential doodlings of sailboats, on the other hand, says Vaisman, show tremendous energy, assertiveness and vitality. She finds in his bold strokes of peaked sails a strong sexual element.
Burns doesn't see it. A preoccupation with sexuality usually shows up in figures whose genital areas are emphasized and heavily shaded, he argues, or in the repeated use of classic sexual symbols such as snakes, candles or darts striking a target.
OK. So the interpretation of doodles and drawings, like that of dreams, isn't an exact science. "It may take years of experience to become sensitive to the subtle messages that drawings and doodles contain," Burns says. He also admits that there's a lot of "foolishness" out there in the field of doodle analysis.
The good news is that you don't have to rely on the experts. You can decode your own doodles. "First, get a sense of the overall feel of your doodles," says Burns. "Drawings that spill out over the page, for instance, are a sign of expansiveness, self-confidence. Small cramped doodles suggest someone who's shy, introverted, even repressed. Then look for repeating images. Ask yourself what memories or feelings are associated with them."
I couldn't resist asking Burns what meaning he saw in the twisting vines and crazy flowers that fill my margins.
"I'd say you're full of life and probably somewhat uninhibited," he said, not missing a beat. "You have a keen imagination and a strong creative impulse. Flowers express growth, abundance, beauty ... "How could I help but believe him? Excerpted from In Health magazine; 1991