What Happens to Your Brain When You Engage in Art Making


Brain during Art Therapy

There are many positive outcomes and benefits that art can bring to the brain and body. It is also for this reason that art serves as the main and important tool when facilitating communication and self-expression during art psychotherapy sessions.

The positive effects and outcomes of making art have been the focus of a recent growing number of studies. Girjia Kaimal, an Assistant Dean for Special Research Initiatives at Drexel University states, "Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate — is good for you."

Here are three main benefits you may experience when engaged in making art:

Art Activates the Reward Pathways in Our Brain

A study conducted in 2017 measured the blood flow in the brain's reward system of participants engaged in art-making. The results showed a significant increase in blood flow in the brain's prefrontal cortex which controls our emotions and motivations. It is also where part of the brain's reward system lies.

When we expect to receive a reward, parts of the brain get activated to release dopamine, aka the 'feel good' hormone. When dopamine is released, our blood flow, heart, and lung functions as well as our stress responses improve. Hence, activating our brain's rewards system has an impact on both our physiological and psychological well-being.

Making art can produce this sense of pleasure in our brain, regardless of the end product. Focusing on the process rather than the end product allows us to experience potential sources of rewards perceived by our brain.

So, the next time you engage in art-making, put aside self-criticism and judgment. Fully immerse in the process of creating an art piece to reap its full benefits.


Art Reduces Cortisol Levels - A Stress Hormone Responsible For 'Flight or Fight'

Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released under stress and pressure causing the 'flight or fight' response. Increased levels of cortisol result in a burst of energy and strength, to get us ready to protect ourselves during times of danger or stress. At the same time, bodily and brain functions that are deemed nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation gets suppressed. When that happens, our body goes into a hyper-vigilant state and compromises our ability to relax and rest.

A 2016 study indicated that making art for 45 minutes reduced cortisol levels which were true for both artists as well as participants without prior experience or training in art. Hence, engaging in art-making has the potential to reduce our cortisol levels. This helps us feel more calm, relaxed and improves our immune response.


Art-Making Encourages A Better State of Flow

Being in a state of flow enhances motivation, development, and performance. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of complete immersion in an activity. While in this state, people are fully engaged and focused on what they are doing at the present moment.

Flow is also characterised by a sense of intrinsic reward when engaging in an activity. This goes back to the first point on how art-making activates the reward pathways in our brain.

Engaging in art allows for the emergence of flow as one experiences feelings of accomplishment (reward pathways), control, and autonomy. These feelings of motivation and accomplishment in art-making helps alleviate anxiety while allowing one to feel more hopeful.

In art therapy, a trained and experienced art therapist will be able to tap on this state of flow and guide a client towards making sense of their current challenges and seek a positive resolution.



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