Art is exercise for the brain

Art+ Neurobiology


Artist and creativity consultant Barbara Doran examines current research in neurobiology to offer insights into the colouring book craze and the benefits of making art.

Last year Amazon’s top five best-sellers were colouring books. Faber Castel, the world’s oldest supplier of coloured pencils was hard pressed to keep up with consumption. Just what does this craze indicate? Offer up the suggestion that art is therapeutic and you are often met with cringes and retorts along the lines that there is much more to art than basket weaving and colouring in. And, yes, there is more.

But perhaps it is worth pausing from our instinctive recoil to ask just what does research into the chemistry of our blood streams and neurological mapping reveal? It turns out that much of the stuff we do when making art actually is therapeutic.

Making art helps sustain ourselves in times of stress. It helps build bonds. When we are in a playful art making mode, our whole brains light up helping us to access memories that are linked to a meaningful life.

Making art even at the most basic level of repeating a mark, a dot, a sound or a movement releases of oxytocin. Oxytocin is dubbed the bonding hormone. It’s produced in high quantities during copulation, in the early bonding phases between carers and new-borns, when we look into each other’s eyes or simply through caring touch. Oxytocin builds trust and endurance. Oxytocin counters the effects of cortisol, the hormone which helps focused action. Both need to be produced in balance, but studies on the growing epidemic of stress related problems such as heart disease, stroke, depression and anxiety point to an imbalance and over production of cortisol.

As contemporary life has become increasingly driven by efficiency and accountability our collective cortisol levels climb. And as a counter drive we crave the state of mind oxytocin delivers. It is no wonder people are flocking to colouring in and drawing workshops such as those run by Arlene TextaQueen; hot property at community festivals and high-end galleries alike.

Arlene TextaQueen, Unseen Superheroes of the Working World, (Snap cards drawing workshop), Summer Festival Kids Program, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Ellen Dissanayake pursues an anthropological enquiry into the links between art and culture and she takes the relationship between oxytocin and art one step further. Dissanayake is an independent scholar who focuses on the psycho-biological roots of human arts practices as an affiliate professor at the School of Music, University of Washington. In her book Art and Intimacy she suggests that our colloquial definition of ‘making art’ refers to our instinct to artify.

For Dissanayake, artification transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary through repetition, formalisation, exaggeration, elaboration and surprise. This can be seen in artworks such as 17 seconds (6), 2016, by Nike Savvas, in which the repeated suspension of 4200 tiny glass orbs in a 2m stainless steel cube produces mesmerising patterns. Similarly, Emma Fielden’s text drawings, Zero and Nothing, 2016, evoke organic and visceral two dimensional forms by repeating the words Zero and Nothing in black ink on white Arches paper. Each artist in their own way, transforms repetition into an experiences of wonder.

In experiencing the world though the process of making art we learn to learn. And we learn to endure the trials and tribulations of rehearsal and refinement. We also learn to surrender to interdependency, to respond to feedback and to seek nuanced distinctions that sustain our attention and engagement. From this perspective, it follows that art is a specialised extension of artification and that skills in crafting and mastery of a medium can be honed if given the opportunity.

Dissanayake argues that artification lies at the core of developing skills in communication (across all modes and mediums) while stimulating the production of oxytocin. For her, artification is biologically bound and fundamentally interwoven with life-long learning, co-operation and regulating flight/fight rhythms.

Many artists and scholars have long acknowledged the role of the body in generating insight through practices involving the material world.

More recently, neuro-scanning has helped to provide visual maps of a realm that has been limited to philosophy, feeling and sensation. Sceptics and rationalists now have evidence to reconsider.

Guy Claxton is an internationally renowned cognitive psychologist specialising in creativity, education and the mind based at the University of Winchester.In his book, Intelligence in the Flesh, he provides a thorough overview of the growing evidence for our embodied intelligence with countless fascinating studies: singing increases spatial awareness; when we use our hands diversely, whole regions of our brain light up; so complex is the intelligence of hands-on learning that NASA will only take on people who have a history of tinkering, a cerebral thinker just can’t solve problems in the same way; skin (our largest organ) will give off electro conductivity signals showing that we know something in our bodies before we consciously register the thought; our hearts have concentrations of neurons linked to feeling; our guts produce neurotransmitters involved in regulating mood, our gut instincts are real.

The field of embodied intelligence does more than reveal, it erodes the prejudices deeply embedded in cerebral elitism and affirms our instinct to artify even if our skills are lacking. The notion of an embodied mind provides insight into the paradoxes encountered between logic and emotion and explains why it is that the arts have power to move us. There are parts of our brain that are dedicated to logical sequencing and without them we would find it hard to organise ourselves into sustained action. However, action is linked to meaning and meaning is linked to emotion. Emotion is the confluence of feelings and other sensory reactions that move us into action. We might develop sophisticated narratives around these responses, but most of the processing happens earlier in our limbic system.

Limbic processing is nonverbal and deeply rooted in memories, particularly those of the body. The nonverbal attributes of art making help us to access our limbic system and memories of authentic meaning and purpose. Clinical psychologists and art therapists such as Dr Noah Hass-Cohen have been taping into this understanding in working with patients who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. Even using different materials, such as chalk and pen, can spark different pathways to memory. For more on this see Hass-Cohen’s book Arts Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience.

Antonio Damasio, a pioneering neuroscientist and director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, is responsible for opening up links between art and the internal workings of our minds. Damasio argues that the impulse to make art lies at the heart of evolutionary adaptions and is fundamentally interwoven with our drive to make sense of our shifting worlds. Art making, he maintains, is part of our ‘homeostatic impulse’ in which bio-feedback is synthesised in search of sense-making and moments of insight.

Most of this rumbles away in unseen digestions of the neurochemical soup of a mind that circulates throughout our body, not just in the grey-matter housed in our skulls. Counter to popular view, most neuroscientists and specialists concerned with the mind would agree that the mind is not just housed in the brain. Rather, it is a distributed regulator of energy that is intricately married with our bodies as we sense and assimilate exchanges between our inner and outer worlds.

Re-imagined views of our bodies as co-dependent and co-operative agents has increasingly become the focus of art works which endeavour to cohere the nature of interaction and artification. Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste’s ongoing sound project Super Critical Mass is a good case in point. Each work variously explores simple sound making, space and social interactions that are performed en masse by volunteers. Although the sounds and locations change, each work stimulates an awareness of how our social and spatial interactions are acutely intertwined. Having been a participant in Day and Jaaniste’s performance, Moving Collected Ambience, 2014, I can testify to the skin tingling sense of connection and welling up of memories that emerged. (Art Guide regular Naomi Gall discusses her 2016 experience of this artwork here.) Similarly, the immense popularity of Anna Mahon and Annie McKinnon’s installation, The Garden of a Thousand Years, 2016, at the Parramatta Lanes Festival speaks to the transformational power of participatory performance work and perhaps an undercurrent of yearning for inclusive, communal connection.

Writer Naomi Gall (centre) performs in Super Critical Mass (Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste), Moving Collected Ambience, 2014/16. Performance documentation, MCA Collection: Today Tomorrow Yesterday, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2016, participatory sound work. Commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art and Performance Space, Sydney, 2015. Image courtesy and © the artists. Photograph: Matthew McGuigan.

There’s another vital element to what might be seen as purposeless experiences of artification. It’s an invitation to play. Play isn’t just hedonistic. It can be immersive and serious. But it is free from utility (although this may come later). We know that new ideas are frequently born of openness and playfulness.

Stuart Brown, a neuropsychiatrist and play scholar at the National Institute for Play, California, has found that there’s nothing like play to fire up the brain. Brown also maintains that linking conscious thinking and the nonverbal, emotional parts of our brain keeps us adaptable and motivated. Through play we find stories, imagination and the spark that motivates. Brown insists that our views on health and intelligence need revisiting. Rather than viewing the opposite of play as work, we should understand the inverse. The opposite of play is depression. For the most part, artists are play specialists. The studio is a playground, classroom and office.

Instead of thinking of art as the rarefied pursuit of an elite few, it may be more useful to think of art making as exercise. We need to do it. We don’t all have to be good at it, but in appreciating the benefits of artification we open up greater opportunities for mastery and recognition of aptitudes we may not know we have. Colouring books might be a small step towards improved oxytocin levels, and in an ideal world, wider appreciation for the intelligence art making taps into. At the bare minimum, making art improves well being and helps us to find meaning in living.

Barbara Doran