We’ve all heard about art’s psychological and physiological effects. Researchers have found, for instance, that a lunchtime jaunt to an art gallery can reduce work-related stress, and that creating art might even help cancer patients. But what about art’s neurological impact — can picking up a paintbrush actually change your brain?
A study conducted on recent retirees in Germany suggests it might. Over 10 weeks, scientists at the University Hospital Erlangen had 14 men and women between the ages of 62 and 70 participate in hands-on art classes, while another 14 took an art appreciation course. Before the testing period began, retirees completed a test measuring their emotional resilience and also had their brains scanned. At the end, the tests were taken again and new brain scans conducted.
The results were published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, in an article titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity.” Researchers discovered “a significant improvement in psychological resilience” among those who participated in drawing and painting classes; they did not find it in the art-appreciation group. What’s more, the fMRI scans of the art-class group also showed improved “effective interaction” between certain regions of the brain known as the default mode network. This area is associated with cognitive process like introspection, self-monitoring, and memory. Since connectivity in this area decreases in old age, it’s possible that art could reverse and even stop its decay.
The question remains open as to why those who studied art history didn’t enjoy similar benefits. The researchers speculate:
The improvements in the visual art production group may be partially attributable to a combination of motor and cognitive processing. Other recent fMRI studies have demonstrated enhancements in the functional connectivity between the frontal, posterior, and temporal cortices after the combination of physical exercises and cognitive training … The participants in our study were required to perform the cognitive tasks of following, understanding, and imitating the visual artist’s introduction. Simultaneously, the participants had to find an individual mode of artistic expression and maintain attention while performing their activity. Although we cannot provide mechanistic explanations, the production of visual art involves more than the mere cognitive and motor processing described. The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience – an experience of “flow,” – in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity … The visual art production intervention involved the development of personal expression and attentional focus on self-related experience during art creation.
Although the sample group is very small, the research suggests there could be some real concrete benefits to creativity, particularly as older populations boom. It could also offer new insight into the lives of artists who worked industriously into old age: Picasso and Matisse produced work until their deaths at ages 91 and 84, respectively, while Louise Bourgeois — whose artistic success only came in her 70s — worked steadily until she died at 98. Their art was driven by fervent creative passion, but what if it was also the thing keeping them lucid?