Art Therapy and The Brain

What’s the art therapy doing to our brain?

There is more and more research every day about what happens in our brain when we are doing creative activities. I am so looking forward to the findings that will continue to come out of the research centres of creative art therapies around the world, like the one at Melbourne University. Even without reading all the stats, every day without fail I hear of the life-changing effects that art therapy is having on people’s lives. There are major effects on our development in all areas of life, from childhood to old age. And that is really exciting!

Young brains, art therapy and improved studies

We talk about children as being sponges and absorbing it all. They look, they learn. They hear, they learn. They feel, they learn. Yes, Alanis Morrissett, you were right. And when they have art therapy, they evolve. Full stop. When it comes to young learners, there is a very telling study that was published in 1999. It is called “Champions of Change: The impact of Arts on Learning”. It was conducted by the former New York Times’ education editor, Edward B Fiske, as well as the United States Department of Education. Incredibly, their research found that learners did better in other subjects as a result of their engagement with the arts. I recall when my children were very young, we would often discuss how when they succeeded in different creative activities their academic studies improved as well. The study categorically said that “Students with high levels of arts participation outperform ‘arts-poor’ students by virtually every measure.” 

Let us think for a moment about offering art therapy to children in poorer communities, who may not have access to better education or resources. What would happen to them if they engaged in art therapy on a regular basis? The study said that “high arts participation makes a more significant difference to students from low-income backgrounds than for high-income students. The study found clear evidence that sustained involvement in particular art forms, music and theatre, are highly correlated with success in mathematics and reading.” With this clear finding, I feel art therapy needs to be included as part of the curriculum and as mainstream as English. Imagine the NAPLAN results then.

“It’s amazing how the different strokes make me feel different; the calming wavy strokes, or the circles that make me feel I am not going anywhere, rising strokes feel like an escape, dots feel like little steps, challenges are the empty space between each step. The step itself acts as an anchor.” 

Ms R, Indigo Art Therapy, Melbourne, March 2020.

Art therapy; is it left or right?

One of the main concepts that came out of the study was that “while learning in other disciplines may often focus on the development of a single skill or talent, the arts regularly engage multiple skills and abilities. Engagement in the arts whether the visual arts, dance, music, theatre or other disciplines nurtures the development of cognitive, social and personal competencies.” This idea is because art therapy uses the right side of the brain more than the left side. The right side is holistic, considering the whole picture, flexible, and can look at a situation from a different perspective. The left side is detailed, analytic, structured and fixed. “This is the way I do things, and don’t tell me another way”

Up until recently, research papers would suggest that people were either more “right-“or “left- brain”. The difference between being right-brained versus left-brained was that the former tended towards creativity and free-thinking and the latter tended towards quantitative and analytical thinking. Current research suggests that actually we all engage both sides of our brain at different times. It really does not matter what our personality or preference is. It means that being “left-brained” doesn’t necessarily describe someone as uncreative or unlikely to benefit from developing one’s creativity.

Everybody and anybody can get involved in creative art therapy and they will benefit from it because they will engage in the parts of the brain that will affect their outlook and behaviour in the long term. In fact, so much of the current findings say that even as adults, if we get involved in creative pursuits, whether by ourselves or in a group, the benefits are significant and tangible. A group of art therapy offers the “community” support, the normalising of an experience, the sense of belonging, the sharing component and the feeling of safety. If your art therapy space has all those offerings, behaviour modification can come as a result of that creative space.

There are so many other studies and investigations on the subject of how art therapy and different forms of creative activities impact us and our learning. They look at many ages, and not just young learners. They look at the impact of art therapy and art on different stages of life, as well as health conditions.

Art therapy loses the patient and finds the person

Activities like painting, sculpting, drawing and photography are not only relaxing, and rewarding hobbies, but they can lower your stress level and leave you with a feeling of mental clarity. As you engage in drawing or painting a repetitive pattern, or sew a line, the brain falls into a sense of predictability, which lowers our nervous system’s need to be on edge as it prepares to react to the next surprise event. This consequence lowers blood pressure, pulse and heart rate, and reduces anxiety. When cortisol levels drop, the fogginess of stress reduces, offering the brain a lot more capacity to decide with clarity. And that’s not just according to what the art therapy participants say. There have been studies using FMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. These studies suggest there is a lot more cognitive regulation of emotions, meaning people are able to think about controlling their emotions, and then they actually do control them. This can lead to psychological resilience and greater self-awareness in those people who engage in visual art-making.

In addition, art therapy has become quite a common therapeutic modality in the last 70 years, since it was formalised back in the mid-1940s. It still has a way to go, to become more mainstream but we are moving forward. Imagine a day when you approach your child’s class teacher with an issue and the first suggestion the teacher will make is “Here is the name of an art therapist around the corner”? That’s where I want to see art therapy going.

Research has also been done in a different area. It is in regards to the role art-making plays in those people who are dealing with illnesses such as cancer. Much of it has to do with creating a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness. Separate to that is art’s ability to show carers and friends of the ill person what their body feels like during the illness. Sometimes we don’t have words to express those sensations. Sometimes a violent zig zag is a perfect way to describe the effects of the strong drug.

Art therapy works with neuroplasticity

But perhaps one of the most important reasons that we should engage in art and art therapy is neuroplasticity, also referred to as the brain plasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and develop throughout life, forming new pathways and connections. They say those that fire together, wire together. If through art therapy we can create new pathways repeatedly, then new behaviours and consequently relationships will form, improving people’s lives in the long-term.

Previously, the adult brain was thought to have developed by the age of 18, and not much would change after that. However, more recent research has taught us that even though it is more fixed than that of a child, it still has the ability to develop and in particular in areas that we choose to work on.

Those areas might include improving memory skills, learning a language or developing a new artistic talent. We are grateful that plasticity helps us recover from major acquired brain injuries like strokes and other brain events. It can also allow us to take advantage of it through learning completely new talents and ways of thinking and problem-solving. It is about making new connections physiologically, intellectually, emotionally and socially. 

Art therapy works. We learn. We practice. We evolve. Simple.