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Creating Art Rewards Your Brain

S u m m a r y : Creating art, from colouring to doodling and drawing, makes the brain feel rewarded, shows a new study published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.

Reward your brain with art!

Colouring, doodling, and drawing are all rewarding to the brain, says art therapist Girija Kaimal from Drexel University. These activities bring significant bloodflow in a specific area of the brain, activating the organ’s reward pathways—art might truly be therapeutic.

Free drawing, an activity done by the participants of the study. Photo credits: Courtesy of Drexel University.

The study was based on measuring blood flow in a brain region related with rewards known as the prefrontal cortex; it is associated with emotions and motivation, and is a part of the reward circuit. Increased bloodflow into it is linked with experiencing feelings of being rewarded. The measurement was made using a technology called fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy). This was performed on a group of 26 participants as they engaged in art-making projects.

Doodling, colouring, and drawing

The volunteers wore fNIRS headbands during 3 different art activities, each lasting for 3 minutes, which were spanned with breaks in between; they included doodling in circles, colouring in a pre-drawn mandala, and a free-drawing session (pictured above). The results show that all of the three activities are associated with an increase in bloodflow in the prefrontal cortex; this did not happen during the rest periods, when bloodflow was within normal ranges.

Examples of doodling in or around a circle. Photo credits: Courtesy of Drexel University.

The three sessions did differ in the amount of bloodflow. Doodling in and around circles generated the highest average bloodflow increase when compared to colouring and free-drawing. However, the difference is not considered statistically significant.

“There were some emergent differences but we did not have a large-enough sample in this initial study to draw any definitive conclusions,” Kaimal said.

Colouring pre-drawn mandalas. Photo credits: Courtesy of Drexel University.

Does it matter if you’re not an artist?

Also, the participants were divided into those who considered themselves to be artists and those who did not because Kaimal and her team wanted to determine whether past experience was an element to be considered in the triggering of feelings of rewards. What they did find was that doodling would stimulate the most brain activity in artists while free-drawing appeared to be the same for both artists and non-artists.

On the other hand, colouring generated negative brain activity for artists. Kaimal interprets this as follows: artists might have felt restricted because of the pre-drawn shapes and fewer choices of media. Furthermore, they might have been frustrated at not being able to complete the activity in the given time.

Overall, these findings suggest that experience does not have an effect on the stress-reducing benefits of art. The results also support the views of art therapists, that art is an important tool to tackle mental health.

Forget about the judgemental society!

Kaimal adds that art activities might trigger an inherent pleasure, regardless of end results. We might be critical of the art we create because of societal definitions of ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’, and thus “reducing or neglecting” a potential brain-rewarding activity. According to Kaimal, their biological evidence could challenge the opinions we hold about ourselves.

“There are several implications of this study’s findings,” Kaimal said. “They indicate an inherent potential for evoking positive emotions through art-making—and doodling especially. Doodling is something we all have experience with and might re-imagine as a democratizing, skill independent, judgment-free pleasurable activity.”


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