Sketching for Memory: Artistic Recall Methods | Power of Art

Exploring How Drawing Enhances Memory Beyond Traditional Learning Methods.

Imagine improving your memory, not through rigorous study techniques, but through the simple act of drawing.

This article explores this intriguing concept, supported by recent scientific studies. Researchers have found that drawing can significantly bolster memory recall, offering an effective and enjoyable alternative to conventional learning methods. This post delves into how anyone, regardless of artistic ability, can harness the power of sketching to enhance their memory. Join us as we uncover the science behind this artistic approach to learning and how it can transform your memory skills.

Words Jake Hopking
3 Dec 2023
Macro photo of coloured pencil tips with narrow depth of field.

Unpacking the Scientific Evidence

Reading aloud or engaging in activities like acting can be effective for memorising new information, but these methods aren't always feasible in every context. For situations where these techniques are impractical, embracing artistic expression offers a promising alternative. A study detailed in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science reveals that drawing while learning significantly enhances memory recall. This approach surpasses other methods like writing, mental visualisation, or looking at photographs, according to research led by Myra Fernandes, Jeffrey Wammes, and Melissa Meade at the University of Waterloo.

Participants could more accurately identify the source of a memory when it was drawn

The research included various experiments with both young and older adults, demonstrating that the benefits of drawing for memory encoding were consistent regardless of artistic skill level, and effective even with as little as four seconds allocated for drawing. Participants in the study were asked to learn around 30 distinct words, such as “truck” and “pear,” employing different encoding strategies like writing or drawing. In some trials, they continuously added details to their drawings or repeatedly wrote the word. In others, they elaborated on the word through writing or drew repeated images of it. Remarkably, the words that were drawn were better remembered than those that were merely written.

To distinguish the effects of drawing from visual imagery, several experiments required participants to either visualise or view a picture of a word, in addition to drawing or writing it. The results showed that drawing consistently led to the highest recall, suggesting that its effectiveness could be attributed to the motor activity of drawing and the elaborative process involved in creating and interpreting an original image.

The researchers also explored whether drawing aids in learning complex concepts. In one experiment, participants studied scientific terms and definitions, then either drew an image representing the term or wrote the definition verbatim. Drawing proved to be significantly more effective for memory retention than writing, even when accounting for prior familiarity with the terms. Interestingly, writing a definition in one’s own words also showed a similar advantage, highlighting that mere transcription offers minimal learning benefits.

Another critical finding was that drawing led to better recognition and recall due to the detailed and context-rich nature of the images created. Participants could more accurately identify the source of a memory when it was drawn and often remembered additional contextual details.

Further investigation into the underlying mechanisms revealed that memory performance improves with the incorporation of more components – elaborative, motoric, or pictorial – in an encoding strategy. Simple tasks like tracing or blind drawing, which involved only two components, enhanced memory more than just writing or imagining. However, drawing from scratch, which seamlessly integrates all three components, was the most effective, sometimes surpassing the combined effect of the individual components.

Considering the typical decline of episodic memory with age, the study also examined if older adults would benefit from the drawing effect. The results were encouraging: older participants, while having more difficulty with written words, showed a greater benefit from drawing compared to younger adults.

This research underscores the potential of drawing as a versatile memory aid across various tasks and demographic groups. Its simplicity makes it a viable option in any setting conducive to doodling. The researchers suggest that future studies should extend this investigation to populations with cognitive impairments, such as dementia patients, due to the ease and significant benefits of drawing as a memory tool.

Drawing Styles

The terms "elaborative," "motoric," and "pictorial'' describe different aspects or approaches within the realm of drawing and visual arts. It’s important to understand their differences and definitions to enable you to get the most from this research.

  1. Elaborative Drawing Style: This style is characterised by its detailed and intricate approach. Artists who employ an elaborative style focus on the refinement and complexity of their images. They often include a lot of decorative elements, textures, and layers in their work. This style is about enhancing the visual appeal and depth of the artwork through detailed workmanship. It's common in works where the artist wants to convey a rich narrative or complex visual experience.

  2. Motoric Drawing Style: The term "motoric" relates to motor skills, referring to the physical and movement aspects of drawing. In a motoric drawing style, the emphasis is on the process and physical act of drawing itself. This style often involves repetitive motions, gesture drawing, or a focus on the kinetic aspect of creating art. It's less about the final visual product and more about the act of drawing as a physical and often expressive or therapeutic activity.

  3. Pictorial Drawing Style: Pictorial style is about creating images that represent the visual appearance of objects and scenes. It's typically associated with representational or figurative art. This style focuses on rendering subjects in a way that they are recognizably depicted, often emphasising perspective, shading, and accurate proportions. The pictorial style is used to create images that are immediately identifiable and often aims for a certain degree of realism or adherence to visual perception.


Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E. (2018). The Surprisingly Powerful Influence of Drawing on Memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 302–308.

Applying the Findings: What You Can Do

In the realm of academic research, findings often remain confined to scholarly journals, rarely making their way into our daily lives. This section aims to bridge that gap. It's designed to translate the complex data and insights from the research we've explored into actionable steps you can take. We distil the essence of the scientific findings into practical advice, offering you a roadmap to integrate these insights into your own life. Read on to discover how you can benefit from the latest research in a tangible, meaningful way.

Beyond the Data: Questions to Ponder

How might incorporating drawing into traditional education systems reshape the learning experience for students?

Integrating drawing into traditional education could transform learning experiences by fostering a more engaging, inclusive, and effective approach. This method caters to diverse learning styles, particularly benefiting visual and kinesthetic learners who might struggle with conventional text-based methods. It could also encourage creativity and innovation, as students learn to express complex concepts visually. Additionally, this approach might reduce stress and anxiety associated with learning, as drawing is often seen as a relaxing activity. However, its implementation would require thoughtful curriculum design and teacher training to effectively blend artistic techniques with academic content.

In what ways could drawing as a memory aid be especially beneficial for older adults or those with cognitive impairments?

Drawing could be a particularly potent tool for older adults or individuals with cognitive impairments. For older adults, engaging in drawing could help counteract the natural decline in memory associated with aging, providing a stimulating and enjoyable cognitive exercise. Its simplicity and the low barrier to entry make it an accessible activity, regardless of artistic skill. For those with cognitive impairments, such as dementia, drawing might offer a way to communicate and express themselves when verbal abilities are declining. Additionally, the sensory engagement involved in drawing could help in grounding and connecting individuals with their environment and memories.

Could the act of drawing unlock deeper levels of understanding and retention for abstract or complex subjects, and how?

Drawing could indeed facilitate deeper understanding and retention of abstract or complex subjects. This process involves translating abstract concepts into concrete images, which can aid in comprehension and make learning more tangible. For instance, drawing molecular structures in chemistry or visualizing historical events in history can provide a clearer, more memorable representation of the information. Moreover, the act of drawing engages multiple areas of the brain, including those responsible for visual processing, motor skills, and memory, leading to a more holistic learning experience. This multisensory engagement can create stronger neural connections, enhancing both understanding and long-term retention of complex subjects.

Power of Art Series

As we explore more research in our series Power of Art, we will keep the exploration organised here.