Doodle Analysis and Interpretation

The Meaning of Absent-Minded Scribbles

Doodling at work
Gregory Kramer / Getty Images

Do you doodle? Many people love to scribble away absent-mindedly, and often these doodles can carry a great deal of meaning, and for the artist, can sometimes be the source of inspiration for serious artworks. This article looks at why people doodle and what doodles might mean. First, a caution: it's important though to remember that a doodle is not a personality test - it's just a doodle; assessments used by psychologists are scientifically and professionally developed and tested. Thinking about doodle meaning can help you reflect on your own feelings and develop creative ideas, but that is all. If you are worried your or a friend's behavior or well-being, please seek professional advice.

Decipher Your Doodles - Meaning and Symbolism

Colors - do the colors in a doodle mean anything?
Placement and Composition - arrangement on the page matters
Lines, Marks, Weight, and Style - the influence of gesture
People and Faces - does that smiley face mean what you think it does?
Flowers and Florals - what do flower shapes say about the doodler?
Geometric Shapes - what do squares, circles, and diamonds represent?
Random Abstract Shapes - is a random pattern the sign of a random mind?
Houses and Windows - what do doodles of homes and gardens indicate?
Three-D Boxes - what does it mean if you turn your squares into boxes?
Ladders - the ladder is a classic symbol in literature and art
Arrows - lethal weapon or helpful direction?
Walls - another symbol with a myriad of cultural references
Stars, Hearts, and Others

- evergreen symbols through tradition and popular culture

Why Do We Doodle?

Often, it's just boredom. People are not wired for doing nothing. with a long prehistory of precarious existence, people need to be constantly engaged in productive action. Laziness is a sure recipe for extinction. Neither are we wired for the purely cerebral activity that so many of us are now employed in. we are designed to work with our hands, to scan the horizon with our eyes, and walk long miles. So, we fidget, twitch, fiddle and doodle whenever we are forced to sit still and inactive for any period of time.

Doodling is also an outlet for frustrated artistic expression. The arts in our society have become 'spectator sports' reserved for the talented, while the rest of us are too embarrassed to sing (except in the shower), dance (except for some foot-tapping) or draw (except for doodling). These fundamental outlets for creative expression have been stymied by a combination of social pressure (fear of inadequacy) and lack of training (our overfull school curricula leaving little room for the arts, combined with a flawed view of artistic development as innate and not to be 'messed with' by education).

When we are otherwise occupied - on the phone, in a meeting or lecture, writing a list - basically, any moderately engaging mental activity with a pen in our hand the censor in our head can be turned off, and we allow ourselves to express the ideas that are locked in our head. Usually, we have a limited visual vocabulary that we have at our disposal; depending on the age at which our artistic development stalled. Children learn a set of formal symbols: the face, house, sun, moon, flower, tree, bird, fish, and basic geometric shapes that are established in early primary school. They might add more complex forms later but rarely learn observational drawing. In the early teens, when realistic expression and detail become important, children keenly feel an inadequacy in their ability to draw realistically, and stop drawing. People who stopped drawing very early will tend to limit their doodles to repetitive geometric forms and the learned symbols from their childhood. Those that continued drawing in their teens will include more involved patterns and complex symbolic representations, while people who maintained an interest in creative expression may create intricate doodles and complete drawings.

Are Doodles Useful for Psychological Assessment?

As indicated throughout these articles, Doodles are not valid measures of psychological states. While there are a few psychological tests that incorporate visual images or drawing, these are not common and only used in particular circumstances. Psychologists would consider doodle interpretation far too vague and subjective to be of any real use in assessment, and at best might be seen as an indicator that a psychological consultation should be considered.

Can Doodles Be Interpreted Like Handwriting or Dreams?

Doodles can certainly reveal something about a person, but what? Interpreting them is inexact, to say the least. As handmade marks on paper, they have a great deal in common with graphology. However, no graphologist would use them as a sole indicator. Looking at a collection of various doodles would offer the most helpful insight, especially when coupled with other information, such as handwriting analysis.

Dream interpretation tends to follow Jungian ideas about the collective unconscious or more esoteric, symbolic meanings. Some people approach doodle interpretation in the same way. But it must also be considered whether the inspiration for a doodle is internal or external. Is the artist expressing concern with a current situation or experience (a person causing difficulties, something on TV, or a movie they have seen) or is it a reflection of an internal state (their personality, an emotional state or conflict)?

Do All Shapes Have Meaning?

Some shapes have a meaning that is inherent – the most basic shapes, such as circle, sun, and square might be among these – and sometimes properties, such as aggression, repetition, fluidity or neatness – will naturally carry significance in the interpretation. Some symbols have a culturally acquired meaning, such as a love-heart or Christian cross, but one that is so universally accepted as to be considered almost inherent. Some symbols have a cultural meaning that has fallen out of use or belongs to a certain realm of knowledge – this includes hobo signs, types of crosses, alchemical and scientific symbols, and astrological symbols to name a few. The presence of these symbols in a doodle might occur accidentally or may indicate familiarity with the realm of knowledge they belong to. Note also that 'doodle' really refers to absent-minded scribblings, not conscious works of art that happen to be on a scrap of paper.

Disclaimer: This information is offered for your amusement only, and is not to be used for psychological assessment in any form. Please, see your health professional if you have any questions or concerns about mental health. Personality testing of any form requires extensive training and should be carried out by experts.

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