Moving Away from Verbal-based Measures of Cognition: Using Drawing to Measure Event Comprehension and Memory

Episodic memory performance is usually determined by tasks such as free recall or recognition of verbal material. These tests measure age-related decline in episodic memory performance, but do not fully demonstrate the complex process of remembering real-world experiences. Nonverbal communication measures are currently utilized to assess cognition in certain clinical populations (e.g., clock-drawing test for dementia patients), but these measures are often used for diagnoses rather than to measure complex cognition (i.e., memory, comprehension, etc.). Measures that do not rely on verbal abilities are needed to avoid potential barriers and provide all individuals with ways of expressing their comprehension and memory. Our work uses drawing, rather than verbal reports, to assess event comprehension and memory. Participants (29 older and 31 younger adults) watched 6 Hollywood film clips and then drew comics of each narrative. Drawings were scored using an action coding scheme to identify narrative goals (i.e., A1 units/small goals and A2 units/large goals) within each panel. Comprehension for the film clips, measured by the comic drawing scores, was compared to working memory and free recall data to evaluate the psychometric properties of our drawing measure and to identify potential relationships between standard measures of cognition and our proposed drawing method.

It was determined that an individual's drawing task performance was strongly correlated with free recall task performance. Although older adults were underperforming the younger adults on the free recall task, older adults had closer to the same memory performance as the younger adults on the drawing task. These discoveries provide evidence that the drawing task is a memory task that could be used in the lab in the future to evaluate age-related decline in episodic memory when remembering complex, real-world events.

Since this drawing task was the first exploratory measure, there may still be some fine tuning to how cognitive ability is measured, but it is an excellent first step. In the future, the hope is that this drawing task could help older adults to use their episodic memory to perform similarly in cognitive ability to the younger adults.

a comic drawn by a participant

Figure 1.
Example of a comic drawn in the Comic task. The participant drew the required 4-panels and described what was happening in each.

Graph from Taylor's research study showing that younger adults drew more accurate depictions of the comics than the older adults.

Figure 2.
Graph depicting the younger adults demonstrating better memory performance by drawing the comics with more accuracy than the older adults.

Associated Presentations/Publications

Simonson, T.L., Hubbell, I., & Bailey, H. R. (2022, November). Moving Away from Verbal-based Measures of Cognition: Using Drawing to Measure Event Comprehension and Memory. Poster Presentation at Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

Simonson, T.L., Hubbell, I., McGatlin, K. C., & Bailey, H. R. (2023, April). Moving Away from Verbal-based Measures of Cognition: Using Drawing to Measure Event Comprehension and Memory. Submitting as a talk for Mid-western Psychological Association Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Simonson, T. L. Hubbell, I., McGatlin, K. C., & Bailey, H. R. (In preparation). Cognition in drawing special edition, Memory & Cognition.