Inside a box labeled “G” in my parents’ attic, buried beneath baseball cards, summer camp Polaroids and other relics of my youth, is the notebook I used for Mr. Sheffield’s ninth-grade history class. On one page, under the heading “Constitutional Convention,” 14-year-old me had written “Pierce Butler, Founding Father”—by way of a steamship’s entire engine room that I had doodled around his name.
Doodling is one of the more productive responses humans can have to boredom.
Mr. Sheffield’s was, without question, the most boring class I took in high school, and the notebook is, understandably, my most thoroughly doodled from those years. I hadn’t given the book much thought until about three weeks ago, when I peered inside a glass display at the New-York Historical Society and saw a page of notes attributed to Butler, the same delegate from South Carolina whom I had once reduced to a piece of boredom art. The date is May 1787—the first meeting of the Constitutional Convention—and the page is full of doodles.
Considering all my scribbling in high school, it’s a wonder I can still recall eminences like Washington and Adams, let alone obscurities like Butler. But as it happens, it may be precisely because I doodled so much that Butler’s name still rings a bell—albeit a faint, distant one. According to a 2009 study published in the scientific journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodling is one of the more productive responses humans can have to boredom. It engages the brain in such a way that, compared to other methods of tedium survival like daydreaming or texting, a sizable amount of information can still enter and stick. Daydreaming, however passive it may seem, is actually a full-brain endeavor: It blocks information from getting in, like a mental shield. The facts are clear—or should be, if I haven’t already lost you to the clouds: In case of boredom, doodle, don’t daydream.
Doodling has long been the refuge of the bored and the jaded. Samuel Beckett (whose doodle can be seen above), Sylvia Plath and John Keats were all devoted doodlers, as was Alexander Pushkin, who doodled so much in his notebooks that full editions of his idle craft have been published. The most famous case of doodling involves the mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, who discovered the Ulam Spiral of prime numbers while sitting through the presentation of a “long and very boring paper.” Even Luise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz retreated to her quill and notebook to combat the relentless ennui of 18th-century regal life. The former Queen of Prussia drew geometric shapes, flower bouquets and portraits of fellow corseted aristocrats on a piece of paper in 1795.
As far as attention span goes, Pierce Butler was no better than any bored middle school student. As one of only 55 delegates on hand to witness the birth of America, Butler spent the hours doodling portraits of men in powdered wigs, two full lines of cursive Es, untold numbers of squiggles and lines and, finally, a strange Robert Durst–like admission—“Yes I confess.” I believe every lesson on the founding fathers should begin with Butler’s doodles. They are proof that even the creation gods were human, that they sweated and itched like us, that they counted down the minutes until supper and endured Ben Franklin’s orations like a parent at an interminable graduation ceremony.
Yes, even the brightest doodled.
Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia