Art therapy experts at Drexel University and The College of New Jersey wondered if there was a neurological basis for the relaxation-inducing powers of coloring, doodling, and drawing.
The best way to find out, they figured, would be to watch people’s brains as they tooled around on the page.
The researchers recruited 26 people, eight of whom self-identified as “artists.” They fitted each person with a special brain-imaging headband and gave them markers and paper. The participants then had three mini art sessions lasting three minutes: one each of doodling, coloring, and drawing whatever they felt like. Between sessions, they left the headbands on and rested their hands. Afterward, the researchers asked participants how they felt about each activity and about themselves.
As human experiments go, this one was pretty sweet for its participants, many of whom said the arts-and-crafts experiment made them feel like they had more good ideas and were better at solving problems afterward. But three minutes was not long enough, some said. They wanted more time.
Their brains seemed similarly into it. All three activities produced an increase in blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, a region that plays a central part in the brain’s reward system. During rest periods, blood flow slowed until it reached normal resting rates.
Some people did enjoy the process more than others. The self-described artists actually reported finding the coloring portion of the experiment kind of stressful.
"I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media," lead author Girija Kaimal said in a statement. "They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time."
In general, though, Kaimal and her colleagues found that people enjoyed these basic low-pressure, creative tasks.
“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," she said. "We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biological proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves."