Your brain on art


Dear Artist,

While learning the springs at my local Pilates studio recently, I noticed a sign above the cubbies: “You are only one workout away from a good mood.” I thought of a friend — a marathoner, hyper as a junkie, her “runner’s high” streaming with endorphins day after day. These endogenous opioid neuropeptides are pumped out by the central nervous system and pituitary gland to counteract the transmission of pain signals — a side effect is often euphoria. In lieu of a marathon, you can release them by laughing or getting a tattoo — but what about painting?


Artist’s interpretation of neurons firing in sporadic, coordinated bursts.
Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT

German neurologists at the University Hospital Erlangen have been studying the brain on art. According to a recent experiment, while painters have their ups and downs, it’s not painkillers they’re releasing. Instead, artists are engaged in the refinement of grey matter — building connections between regions of the brain for higher, more integrated functioning. In the study, 28 men and women took a “resilience scale measurement” psychology test, agreeing or disagreeing with statements like, “I can usually find something to laugh about,” and had their brains scanned. Then, once-a-week for ten weeks, they either learned to paint or attended an art appreciation class where they analyzed and discussed artwork with an historian. After the ten-week period, participants retook the resilience test and had their brains rescanned. Researchers noticed that the painters saw raised levels of brain function connectivity and a considerable bump in psychological resilience, while the appreciation group remained unchanged. The painters’ brain improvement was pinpointed to within their default mode networks — an area responsible for introspection, self-monitoring and memory.


Scientists ‘read dreams’ using brain scans. Rebecca Morelle, BBC science

Perhaps you already knew this. Art-making demands our experiences and observations be processed in inventive, abstract ways, with focus and emotional alertness — or as the researchers concluded, painting requires “enhanced memory processing, which is indeed required when stored knowledge is connected with new information to create creative works.” Squeeze out. You’re only a painting away from a better brain.



PS: “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 [immersed]in the creative activity.” (Anne Bolwerk and Christian Maihofner, How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity)


A new perspective
Human Connectome Project

Esoterica: Because with age the default mode network begins to decline, the neuroscientists at University Hospital Erlangen studied the brains of older people. Their test subjects were men and women aged 62-70 — each retired for a minimum of 3 months and no more than 3 years. A significant improvement was found in the visual art production group. “Our results have important implications for preventative and therapeutic interventions,” say Bolwerk and Maihofner. The verdict is in: Picking up a brush at any age can strengthen brain connectivity and build confidence and emotional resilience. “Art is a guaranty of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.” (Louise Bourgeois)

recording the human nervous system

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“Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things.” (Joseph Pilates



  1. Ole Pathfinder on

    I have been active in art classes for three years. I am in my 70’s. I have noticed an improvement in my fine motor control. That is only anecdotal and not scientific but I will take what I can get. I also find an enjoyable social aspect to the classes. It gets me out of the house and interacting with people of similar interests. My wife is actively pursuing arts and crafts and has sold several pieces. We share a craft room which creates another degree of closeness for us which is great. I have had some modest success in entering my work in local gallery shows. It just kinda brightens life.

    • I am so happy that you have benefit fully from your artistic endeavors. I do believe that arts can change your mind and your health. Keep doing what you are doing and enjoy the process. Thank you for sharing. :-)

  2. Thanks for the ‘official’ confirmation of what I’ve personally noticed. I’ve been messing about this paper and paint for years but this year, while dealing with a serious health issue, I’ve struggled to find energy to create. On Tuesday a friend introduced me to gelli monoprinting and yesterday I spent the whole day watching youtube videos on how to gelli print and gathering supplies to get started. This morning I feel better that I’ve felt in months!

    Creativity and art is truly good for my body, mind and spirit!

    • Patricia Wafer on

      Good for you, Cheryl – mono printing forces us to be creative. It is really fun to do ink drawings on top of the printed page. I sometimes print a few pages in a sketchbook which is very easy to do with a gelli plate. The pre-printed pages often seem more inviting to sketch on than the blank page. Have fun!

  3. Every time I hear that art is therapeutic I think, But what about Van Gogh, Rothko, Diane Arbus, etc. “Art is a guaranty of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said.” Maybe not, Louise. But fortunately, sanity is not a prerequisite of creativity. In fact, it may sometimes be a restraint. “You want to be what?! An artist?! Are you crazy?” LOL. Just saying.

  4. What a fabulous article Sara ! I don’t often say “I have osteoarthritis” because I don’t want to own it by affirmation ha! When I am painting my spirit is in such a happy place that the discomfort moves to another place. Often, my creativity takes hours and I come back to reality in my studio refreshed and filled with positive energy. Ohhh, the joy of dipping our brushes….

  5. Allow me to remark on a typo: I believe you meant to say “in which the participant is fully immersed in the creative activity.” Instead of the opposite: “emerged”. Granted, the artists will eventually ’emerge’ with “an experience of flow” but only after being immersed. (Please chuckle while you read this.)

    Thank you for continuing this vital tradition of writing to Artists. We loved your Father; now we do love you.

    • Thanks, Rosemary…agreed, a curious word-swap. I wondered, too — it’s a direct quote from the study…perhaps a typo in the translation from German, or just poetic. Here’s a direct link to the findings for those interested:
      — some wonderful statements in introduction about art-making regulating heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, and in the conclusion regarding artists’ strengthened emotional resilience and art making’s value to older people.

  6. As an Art Teacher, I’ve noticed a notable change in students engagement when they are totally immersed in their projects. They would first look at the samples given, and determine, I can’t do that! Once they found out the steps to achieve the required results, they became engaged in the creative portion of the task. Those blocks can happen for any of us, artists, but realizing the brain can also adapt to most challenges once given the opportunity for success.

    In summary, it is reassuring to find out the positive scientific effect that the brain and art actually have together. The beauty is, I was able to experience this effect firsthand in the classroom. Art is a fabulous expression of oneself! Thank you, Sara, for another great read!

  7. I was just telling a friend that art is a form of meditation for me. I have struggled with anxiety all my life, but whenever I am drawing or painting, I am much more in the moment & quite often in a state of blissful flow. It’s no wonder I became an artist.

    Unfortunately it is difficult to draw whenever anxiety arises– I don’t think it would help matters while driving, for instance– & my husband would laugh if I tried to claim it kept me sane. Nonetheless, I’m convinced it is absolutely necessary for the health of my brain & every other part of me, & I’m not stopping until they pry the paintbrush from my cold dead fingers!


  8. Mary Manning on

    Making art also brings more joy into life. Instead of chasing mindfulness, or trying to sit on a cushion to meditate, the flow begins connecting images, memories and reality into a beautiful work of art. And at 69, I feel alive, happy and healthy! Thank you, Sara, for sharing this one.

  9. I wonder if they might evaluate the LOOKING at great art. People have huge reactions to that kind of looking; it’s called The Stendhal Effect. They can get really high and even faint, as Stendhal did, while viewing great art. I felt this at The Ufizzi in Florence. I wanted to see it all and that is impossible. The room with the Botticelli’s was almost overwhelming. I got short of breath. Each one is a high.

    Donna Veeder

    • I felt exactly that same way at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” was so incredibly beautiful that I physically could not pull myself away. I probably spent a good half hour staring at it, luxuriating in every brush stroke.

    • I agree with your comments! I get a breathless feeling often when viewing art! I feel it in my brain. For those of you in the Vancouver BC. region, please consider a trip to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler. The Beaverbrook collection is there for about another 1 1/2 months and it will excercise your brain!

  10. “Squeeze out,” such good advice, and I for one shall attempt to do just that. Just wondering , do you read my mind ?

  11. I see us as body mind and soul. The properties of the soul are those of imagination, creativity, insight, understanding, comprehension and long term memory. The soul is connected to the mind and the mind through the aid of the external senses provides information about our environment and processes that information. How we interpret that information and use it depends on the soul – that eternal entity which lives on after our body wears out and reflects those eternal qualities which are called virtues. I don’t think ever that scientists will ever unravel the mysteries of the soul with quantitative analysis. However it is certain that when we employ and exercise those attributes of the soul in the arts or any creative venture we are developing or utilize a creative imaginative approach to the mundane chores of life we are developing our soul. We see the individual uniqueness of every human being reflected in those activities. To respect and understand our own uniqueness and then respect that of others is surely the essence of what makes us human. In this age of computers it is so easy to become digitalised using only our mind in a processing mode with no time for reflection, contemplation and to be creative. I have mostly worked in community arts and with people on the edge of life marginalised because of their illness, their culture and particularly with indigenous people. It is very evident that when these people have the opportunity to be creative many shine like brilliant stars. At this very moment I am in the Gibson Desert working with a small group of full-blood aboriginal people making paper from spinifex grass and then painting on it. Thanks Sara for keeping these letters coming. I wish you all the best with your own art ventures.

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  13. I think yoga releases some of those endorphins or any creative and productive work, like gardening or cooking, which I just did and then touched up and framed two recent pieces of art. Feeling better already.

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  15. I’d love to be the subject of this kind of scientific observation. Why? Because not only can I illustrate what it’s like to be “in the flow creatively”- I can tell you how I got there and explain how you can get there and then show you and prove to you energetically what getting there means. You present running as a pathway to euphoria- but dancing is even better. So if you know any relevant scientists- give them my phone number!

  16. I’ve also heard somewhere that when you’re painting or engaged in any creative act, when the time zips by, that you actually stop “aging”…….art does that!

    • Ken Chambers on

      Let’s see….I have been painting a series of small local scenes in Saint John for a small gallery and I have another one of those pesky birthdays coming up on Tuesday…..maybe I will ignore it….no, I will celebrate with the usual, a nice long early morning bike ride and then a cold beer…then I will get back into the studio! Embrace the age. Stay thirsty!

  17. I’ve always found that painting and drawing make me feel better if I am upset about something, and I believe part of that is because art allows me to express, like you said, emotions and experiences in an abstract way. Thanks for sharing this research!

  18. Pingback: Your Brain On Art! – Rita Long

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