Cutting-edge research shows that making art benefits the brain (2024)

During self-isolation due to coronavirus, many are turning to the arts. Perhaps they seek a creative outlet or opportunity for expression, but it’s also possible that their attraction may be driven by an innate desire to use their brains in ways that make them feel good.

As a professor and arts educator for over 20 years, I have witnessed the mental benefits of an arts-rich life — but don’t take my word for it. There is a powerful and compelling case, supported by cutting-edge research, that the arts have positive effects on mental health.

Mental health issues affect nearly half of the global population, at some point, by age 40. Add to that, recent challenges of the pandemic for maintaining mental wellness, managing fears, and uncertainty, and one thing is clear: it’s time to think differently when it comes to how we engage our minds.

The arts offer an evidence-based solution for promoting mental health. While practicing the arts is not the panacea for all mental health challenges, there’s enough evidence to support prioritizing arts in our own lives at home as well as in our education systems.

For managing well-being — The relationship between the arts and mental health is well established in the field of art therapy, which applies arts-based techniques (like painting, dancing, and role play) as evidence-based interventions for mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. There is also growing evidence that the arts can be used in non-therapy contexts for promoting mental health, such as using performing arts to learn about the core subject areas in schools or doing visual art with adults who are mentally well and want to sustain that sense of wellness.

In other words, practicing the arts can be used to build capacity for managing one’s mental and emotional well-being.

Neuroesthetics — With recent advances in biological, cognitive, and neurological science, there are new forms of evidence on the arts and the brain. For example, researchers have used biofeedback to study the effects of visual art on neural circuits and neuroendocrine markers to find biological evidence that visual art promotes health, wellness, and fosters adaptive responses to stress.

In another study, cognitive neuroscientists found that creating art reduces cortisol levels (markers for stress), and that through art people can induce positive mental states. These studies are part of a new field of research, called neuroesthetics: the scientific study of the neurobiological basis of the arts.

Neuroesthetics uses brain imaging, brain wave technology, and biofeedback to gather scientific evidence of how we respond to the arts. Through this, there is physical, scientific evidence that the arts engage the mind in novel ways, tap into our emotions in healthy ways, and make us feel good.

Mindfulness and flow — The arts have also been found to be effective tools for mindfulness, a trending practice in schools that is effective for managing mental health.

Being mindful is being aware and conscious of your thoughts and state of mind without judgment. The cognitive-reflective aspects of the arts, in addition to their ability to shift cognitive focus, make them especially effective as tools for mindfulness. Specifically, engaging with visual art has been found to activate different parts of the brain other than those taxed by logical, linear thinking; and another study found that visual art activated distinct and specialized visual areas of the brain.

In short: the arts create conditions for mindfulness by accessing and engaging different parts of the brain through the conscious shifting of mental states. For those of us who practice regularly in the arts, we are aware of those states, able to shift in and out, and reap the physiological benefits through a neurological system that delights in and rewards cognitive challenges. Neuroesthetic findings suggest this is not an experience exclusive to artists: it is simply untapped by those who do not practice in the arts.

Research shows that the arts can be used to create a unique cognitive shift into a holistic state of mind called flow, a state of optimal engagement first identified in artists, that is mentally pleasurable and neurochemically rewarding.

There is a wealth of studies on the relationship between the arts, flow, and mental health, and flow-like states have been connected to mindfulness, attention, creativity, and even improve cognition.

Benefits in education — Despite increasing evidence published in top, peer-reviewed journals, on the measurable benefits of the arts in education, such as increased academic performance and the development of innovative thinking, the arts continue to be marginalized in education.

Could the study of neuroesthetics finally provide the evidence decision-makers require to prioritize the arts in education? If so, we may be on the verge of a renaissance that remembers our human instinct to create.

One thing is certain: the mental health crisis affecting young people implicates a systematic failure to provide the right tools for success. That should not be acceptable to anyone.

Three tips for arts-based mindfulness

1. Make mistakes: Try something new and be willing to make mistakes to learn. Most artists practice for years before they are able to render something realistic, and they are willing to make many mistakes along the way, likely because the brain rewards learning. If you are trying this at home, don’t encourage anything messy with children unless you have time to oversee it. There is nothing worse for kids than getting in trouble for something you have encouraged — it can crush their love of art and inhibit creative exploration.

2. Reuse and repeat: Play and experiment with reusable materials, like dry-erase markers on windows that can be easily wiped away, or sculpting material, like playdough that can be squished and reshaped. This emphasizes practice and process over product and takes the pressure off to make something that looks good. If you really must keep a copy, snap a quick photo of the work, then let it go.

3. Limit language: Try not to talk when you are making art, and if you are listening to music, choose something without lyrics. The parts of the brain activated during visual art are different than those activated for speech generation and language processing. Give those overworked parts of the mind a break, and indulge in the calm relaxation that comes from doing so. The neurochemicals that are released feel good, and that is your brain’s way of thanking you for the experience.

This article was originally published on The Conversation by Brittany Harker Martin at the University of Calgary. Read the original article here.

Cutting-edge research shows that making art benefits the brain (2024)


Cutting-edge research shows that making art benefits the brain? ›

There is an increasing amount of scientific evidence that proves art enhances brain function. It has an impact on brain wave patterns and emotions, the nervous system, and can actually raise serotonin levels. Art can change a person's outlook and the way they experience the world.

How does art benefit the brain? ›

Any type of creative expression allows you to imagine new ways to communicate and engage with the world, as well as engages the brain's neuroplasticity, helping patients recover from things like traumatic brain injuries or stroke.

What happens in your brain when you see art? ›

We are drawn to experiencing art, because doing so lights up the pleasure centers of our brains, creating a warm feeling that encourages us to want more of the same—much the way our brains respond to fulfilling basic needs, like food and sex.

What parts of the brain are used when making art? ›

The Limbic System

The hippocampus and amygdala, both parts of this system, are especially relevant to creativity and imagination. The hippocampus is charged with storing and retrieving memories, and the amygdala is responsible for processing emotions. In conjunction, these two parts of the brain help to form ideas.

How the brain is affected by drawing? ›

Not only is drawing a form of literacy, it also helps your memory! A study from Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology found that participants that doodled were 29% more likely to remember mundane information. IT MAKES YOU HAPPY: When you draw, you release Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, and Norepinephrine.

Is making art good for mental health? ›

Because of these feel-good effects, art is a powerful tool for self-care and mental health. Studies have shown that expression through art can help people with depression, anxiety, and stress. Art has also been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in aging adults.

How does art benefit us? ›

It can provide a sense of purpose, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Art can also help reduce stress, build self-confidence, and improve problem solving skills. Art can be used to express feelings and emotions, helping to better understand and cope with difficult experiences.

What are the three major arts of the brain? ›

The brain is composed of the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem (Fig. 1). Figure 1. The brain has three main parts: the cerebrum, cerebellum and brainstem.

What art of the brain controls memory? ›

Most available evidence suggests that the functions of memory are carried out by the hippocampus and other related structures in the temporal lobe. (The hippocampus and the amygdala, nearby, also form part of the limbic system, a pathway in the brain (more...)

What art of the brain controls balance? ›

The cerebellum — also called the "little brain" because it looks like a small version of the cerebrum — is responsible for balance, movement, and coordination. The pons and the medulla, along with the midbrain, are often called the brainstem. The brainstem takes in, sends out, and coordinates the brain's messages.

Does art improve memory? ›

Art provides a fun way for you and your child to express your creativity and individuality, and it can also be used as a great tool for improving memory. You can both use art to sharpen your memorization skills by imitating what you see, using a process known as “conceptual visualization.”

Why is drawing so powerful? ›

When students draw something, they process it in three different ways, in effect learning it three times over. *The takeaway: Encourage students to draw. Doing so is a powerful tool to boost student learning because it improves recall by challenging students to explore an idea in different ways.

Why do people create art? ›

There are countless reasons that motivate the creation of art; some of them are making our surroundings more beautiful; creating records of a specific time, place, person or object; and expressing and communicating ideas. Art is inspiring and stimulating for the human mind.

How does creativity help your brain? ›

Engaging in creative activities gives our minds a much-needed break from the demands of everyday life, allowing us to focus on something enjoyable and absorbing. This can help to reduce stress levels and promote a sense of calm and well-being. Creativity can also play a role in improving mental health.

How does art influence thinking? ›

1) Art can broaden your perspective.

When you're able to think creatively it can open you up to finding new solutions you otherwise wouldn't have thought of. “It's like looking at an image upside down, to see it for what it is and not just as the image your eye is “trained” to see.

How does art strengthen memory? ›

It forces students to grapple with what they're learning and reconstruct it in a way that makes sense to them. The researchers also suggest that drawing results in better recall because of how the information is encoded in memory.

What is the impact of performing art in human mind? ›

Engaging with acting and performing arts offers a cathartic release, allowing individuals to confront their fears, anxieties, and inner turmoil. Both performers and audience members experience catharsis, a purging of emotions that can be incredibly therapeutic.

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