How to draw a brain

Want to keep your writing brain fired up and growing well into old age? Draw or paint an object, a landscape, a person, an abstract, or whatever captures your eyes or occurs to your creative instincts. A recent study reported in PLOS ONE: “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity,” confirms that drawing and painting as a medium to create art bolsters brain functionality, far more than simply viewing and interpreting art. Comparing subjects who were asked to create something artistic, to a group who were only asked to view and discuss art (with an art expert), researchers found that those who practiced an art (in this case drawing or painting):

  • Showed a significant improvement in psychological resilience.
  • Showed improved “effective interaction” between the regions of the brain known as the default mode network, which is associated with cognitive processes like introspection, self-monitoring, and memory.
  • Showed enhanced activity in the functional connectivity between the frontal, posterior, and temporal cortices.
  • Showed enhanced memory processing, which is indeed required when stored knowledge is connected with new information to produce creative works.

In creating a drawing or a painting, you engage brain regions that are susceptible to the deleterious effects of aging and thus creating art may well keep your brain functioning at a higher level—and spur introspection and creativity.

It’s important to note that the participants in the art creation group were asked to perform the cognitive tasks of listening to, understanding, and imitating the visual artist’s instructions, and then to find and execute their individual mode of artistic expression—and to maintain focus while executing their art. This process involved significantly more cognitive and motor coordination than those who just talked about art appreciation. Participants who created their own art not only fired up their brains, they experienced “flow,” or being so fully engaged in creative activity that all else falls away.

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Recently, I’ve discovered an interest in sketching, and my first efforts are truly unimpressive, but it’s simply the process of seeing something purely in a visual way and trying to replicate it, using hands that are far more used to typing than drawing, that feels stimulating—and now I know why!

Tip: Before your next writing session, spend 15 minutes looking at an object (or a landscape) and sketching or painting what you see. Really focus on the task and look for a way to make the art you create reflect something about you (a love of wacky color combinations, a passion for shadows, the desire to spin off into unfettered exploration, and so on). The goal is not to create something beautiful; the goal is to bolster connectivity in your brain and get it fired up for writing.

Happy writing!

Patients who recently suffered strokes were asked to copy diagrams, and showed varying degrees of drawing deficits. Credit: Nele DemeyereCNS: Would you please describe the subjects you used in your study? Were they identified as having drawing deficits prior to the study?

Demeyere: All the patients in this study were stroke survivors, they were not selected on any cognitive measure or any particular lesion site or laterality. Instead, this was an consecutive sample of patients which we assessed with the complex figure copy task between 0 and 3 months post their stroke onset as part of a large study assessing over 800 patients with the newly developed BCoS [Birmingham Cognitive Screen].

There are several strengths in having such an unselected sample. For example, by not selecting patients on the basis of their lesion site, we avoid biasing the results of this whole brain analysis to focus on any a priori pre-specified region. Also, by not selecting patients on the basis of their behavioral deficit, we sample a large range of performance; this is important because the structural brain analyses we report involve correlation between the lesion and the behavioral performance, and for this, a range of behavioral scores are necessary.

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