Making Even Mediocre Art Lights Up Your Brain’s Reward Center


Jun 19, 2017


There’s a reason you like to sketch and doodle: Making art actually fires up your brain’s reward center during your art-making, according to a new study, based on how art affects the brain.

It was a small study, but telling: 26 participants wore fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) headbands to measure bloodflow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, while they completed three different art activities (each with rest periods between). For three minutes each, the participants colored in a mandala, doodled within or around a circle marked on a paper, and had a free-drawing session.

During all three activities, bloodflow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex increased markedly, compared to rest periods when bloodflow decreased to normal rates. (There were some variation in bloodflow data between the activities, but enough to be statistically significant, according to analysis.)

The prefrontal cortex is related to regulating our thoughts, feelings and actions. It is also related to emotional and motivational systems and part of the wiring for our brain’s reward circuit. So, seeing increased bloodflow in these areas likely means a person is feeling rewarded in some way — explicitly, like getting a gold-star for a good grade, or in this case, implicitly, by getting inherent pleasure from an activity regardless of outcome.

Interestingly, the increase in prefrontal cortex bloodflow (and thus, reward feelings) were true for both participants who considered themselves artists and those who did not. This supports earlier research that has found experience level in art does not have a bearing on the activity’s stress-reduction benefits.

“Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgments of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not,” said Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University. “We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biologocial proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves.”

The findings are a huge boon not only to the average doodler, but also the world of mental health therapy, where art therapy practices have struggled to find the same level of respect as their psychoanalytical peers.

“There are several implications of this study’s findings,” Kaimal said. “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 re-imagine as a democratizing, skill independent, judgment-free pleasurable activity.”

Which means, at last, your stick figure sketches are actually worth something — if only to you.

  Read more on the benefits of doodling on The Swaddle.

The study, published in the jounral The Arts in Psychotherapy, was co-authored by Drexel faculty including Jennifer Nasser, PhD, and Hasan Ayaz, PhD.



Written By Lila Sahija

Lila reports on health and science news for The Swaddle. She has loved biology ever since she dissected her first frog in eighth grade, and now has a keen interest in examining human behavior. She also loves animals and takes at least one adventure a year through rural India. Oh, and she bakes a mean German coffee cake.


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