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Science: Doodling Has Real Benefits For The Brain

Doodling, coloring, and free-drawing increase blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with reward.

Many creative people know that making art is its own reward. Now science corroborates it. A new study from Drexel University shows that the process of making art stimulates the area of the brain that’s related to rewards–the same area that makes dancing, laughing, and eating chocolate so much fun.

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To test the impact of making art on the brain, Girija Kaimal, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel, used medical scanning technology to observe blood flow in people’s brains when they doodle and draw. Twenty-six participants wore headbands with functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology–which measures the flow of blood using light rays–while coloring a geometric pattern, doodling on a piece of paper marked with a circle, and drawing whatever they desired. The participants, some artists, some not, completed each activity for three minutes with breaks in between. The results were published in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.

[Image: Drexel University/Girija Kaimal]
Kaimal and her team found that there was increased blood flow to the area of the prefrontal cortex related to feelings of reward when the participants were creating art versus the rest periods–similar to what happens when you laugh or indulge in a chocolate bar, both of which stimulate the same reward circuit in the brain. There were small differences between each type of art making, with doodling causing the most increase in blood flow and coloring the least, though it was not statistically significant. Kaimal hypothesizes that the increased blood flow is due to an inherent pleasure in making art.

Interestingly, the participants who identified as artists had less blood flow to the reward pathway of the brain during the coloring activity–scientific evidence that artists prefer not to color within the lines.

The benefits of making art don’t stop there. Surveys that participants took before and after the art-making activities show that participants felt more creative afterward–they believed they had more good ideas and could solve problems more easily.

“There are several implications of this study’s findings,” Kaimal told Drexel’s news publication. “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 reimagine as a democratizing, skill independent, judgment-free pleasurable activity.”

The study provides evidence for the benefit of art as a therapeutic tool for everybody, regardless of their skill level.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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