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How doing art, (ANYTHING CREATIVE) helps your brain

Updated: Dec 31, 2021

Almost without exception, serious artists describe how they carry a sketchbook and draw - on public transportation, in doctor's offices, in the car, on land, sea and air . . . wherever they are, wherever they go. I've tried it and failed. Obviously, I'm not serious artist. I am, however a proponent of creative expression for health and well-being. (We have posted many tutorials on easy ways of doing "art" for the non-artist. Check the links below)

These artists often explain that when they create it clears their head, makes them feel calmer and more relaxed. Research supports their experience.

It turns out there's a lot happening in our minds and bodies when we make art or engage in any form of creative expression: drawing, painting, collaging, sculpting clay, writing poetry, cake decorating, knitting, scrapbooking the sky's the limit.

Judy doing art

"Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you," says Girija Kaimal. She's a professor at Drexel University and a researcher in art therapy, leading art sessions with members of the military suffering from traumatic brain injury and caregivers of cancer patients.

Everybody, no matter what your skill level, is something you should try to do on a regular basis. Here's 5 reasons why:

1. Creative expression helps you imagine a more hopeful future

Our brain is a predictive machine.

Art's ability to flex our imaginations may be one of the reasons why we've been making art since we were cave-dwellers and might serve an evolutionary purpose. Girija Kaimal,art therapists holds the theory that art-making helps us navigate problems that might arise in the future.

Her theory builds off of an idea developed in the last few years — that our brain is a predictive machine. The brain uses "information to make predictions about we might do next — and more importantly what we need to do next to survive and thrive.

"When you make art, you're making a series of decisions — what kind of drawing utensil to use, what color, how to translate what you're seeing onto the paper. And ultimately, interpreting the images — figuring out what it means."

"So what our brain is doing every day, every moment, consciously and unconsciously, is trying to imagine what is going to come and preparing yourself to face that," she says.

"Kaimal has seen this play out at her clinical practice as an art therapist with a student who was severely depressed. "She was despairing. Her grades were really poor and she had a sense of hopelessness," she recalls."

The student took out a piece of paper and colored the whole sheet with thick black marker. Kaimal didn't say anything.

"She looked at that black sheet of paper and stared at it for some time," says Kaimal. "And then she said, 'Wow. That looks really dark and bleak.' "

And then something amazing happened, says Kaimal. The student looked around and grabbed some pink sculpting clay. And she started making ... flowers: "She said, you know what? I think maybe this reminds me of spring."

Through that session and through creating art, says Kaimal, the student was able to imagine possibilities and see a future beyond the present moment in which she was despairing and depressed.

"This act of imagination is actually an act of survival," she says. "It is preparing us to imagine possibilities and hopefully survive those possibilities."

2. Creativity activates the reward center of our brain

For some people, making art can be intimidating - I'm not an artist. What would I make? What if it sucks? Studies show that despite those fears, "engaging in any sort of visual expression results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated," says Kaimal. "Which means that you feel good and it's perceived as a pleasurable experience."

She and a team of researchers measured blood flow to the brain's reward center, the medial prefrontal cortex. In 26 participants as they completed three art activities: coloring in a mandala, doodling and drawing freely on a blank sheet of paper. there was an increase in blood flow to this part of the brain when the participants were making art.

This research suggests making art may have benefit for people dealing with health conditions that activate the reward pathways in the brain, like addictive behaviors, eating disorders or mood disorders.

3. Creative expression lowers stress

There's evidence that making art can lower stress and anxiety. Researchers measured cortisol levels of 39 healthy adults. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress.

They found that 45 minutes of creating art in a studio setting with an art therapist significant lowered cortisol levels.

The research also showed that there were no differences in health outcomes between people who identify as experienced artists and people who don't. So no matter your skill level, you'll be able to feel all the good things that come with doing creative expression.

4. Creativity lets you focus deeply - creates a meditative state

"Ultimately, says Kaimal, making art should induce what the scientific community calls "flow" — the wonderful thing that happens when you're in the zone. "It's that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You're so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space,"

And what's happening in your brain when you're in flow state? "It activates several networks including relaxed reflective state, focused attention to task and sense of pleasure," she says. Kaimal points to a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, which found that flow was characterized by increased theta wave activity in the frontal areas of the brain — and moderate alpha wave activities in the frontal and central areas.

What kind of "art" should you try?

Not into painting or knitting? There are types of art appear to yield greater health benefits than others.

CLAY: Kaimal says modeling clay, for example, is wonderful to play around with. "It engages both your hands and many parts of your brain in sensory experiences," she says. "Your sense of touch, your sense of three-dimensional space, sight, maybe a little bit of sound — all of these are engaged in using several parts of yourself for self-expression, and likely to be more beneficial."

COLORING: A number of studies have shown that coloring inside a shape — specifically a pre-drawn geometric mandala design — is more effective in boosting mood than coloring on a blank paper or even coloring inside a square shape.

There's no one medium or art activity that's "better" than another.

5. Creativity helps process your emotions

It's important to note: if you're going through serious mental health distress, you should seek the guidance of a professional art therapist.

However, if you're making art to connect with your own creativity, decrease anxiety and hone your coping skills, creative expression can help. For example:

Draw or scribble lines, shapes and colors translate your emotional experience.

Focus on feelings or sensations that you feel in your body, your memories.

Pick magazine pictures that intuitively catch your attention for a collage.

"Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, remaining connected to yourself and connected to the world," * Read for further suggestions:

*Christianne Strang, professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama Birmingham and the former president of the American Art Therapy Association.

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