Making art activates brain's reward pathway

June 13, 2017
Examples of the doodling activity. Credit: Drexel University

Your brain's reward pathways become active during art-making activities like doodling, according to a new Drexel University study.

Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, led a team that used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) technology to measure blood flow in the areas of the brain related to rewards while study participants completed a variety of art-making projects.

"This shows that there might be inherent pleasure in doing art activities independent of the end results. Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgements of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not," said Kaimal of the study that was published The Arts in Psychotherapy. "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."

For the study, co-authored by Drexel faculty including Jennifer Nasser, PhD, and Hasan Ayaz, PhD, 26 participants wore fNIRS headbands 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, there was a measured increase in bloodflow in the brain's , compared to rest periods where bloodflow decreased to normal rates.

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 experiencing feels related to being rewarded.

There were some distinctions between the activities in the data collected.

Doodling in or around the circle had the highest average measured bloodflow increase in the reward pathway compared to free-drawing (the next highest) and coloring. However, the difference between each form of art-making was not statistically significant, according to analysis.

"There were some emergent differences but we did not have a large-enough sample in this initial study to draw any definitive conclusions," Kaimal said.

Examples of the mandalas colored for the coloring activity. Credit: Drexel University.

It was noted and tracked which participants in the study considered themselves artists so that their results could be compared to non-artists. In that way, Kaimal and her team hoped to understand whether past experience played a factor in triggering feelings of reward.

Doodling seemed to initiate the most brain activity in artists, but free-drawing was observed to be about the same for artists and non-artists. Interestingly, the set coloring activity actually resulted in negative brain activity in artists.

"I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media," Kaimal explained. "They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time."

Again, however, these results regarding artists versus non-artists proved statistically insignificant, which might actually track with Kaimal's previous research that found experience-level did not have a bearing on the stress-reduction benefits people had while making art.

Overall, though, the finding that any form of art-making resulted in the significant activation of feelings of reward are compelling, especially for art therapists who see art as a valuable tool for mental health.

In fact, in surveys administered to the participants after the activities were complete, respondents indicated that they felt more like they had "good ideas" and could "solve problems" than before the activities. Participants even said they felt the three-minute time spans for art-making weren't long enough.

"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."

Additionally, Kaimal felt that the findings of increased self-opinion were intriguing.

"There might be inherent aspects to visual self-expression that evoke both pleasure and a sense of creative agency in ourselves," she said.

Explore further: At any skill level, making art reduces stress hormones

More information: Girija Kaimal et al, Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing, The Arts in Psychotherapy (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.004

Related Stories

At any skill level, making art reduces stress hormones

June 15, 2016
Whether you're Van Gogh or a stick-figure sketcher, a new Drexel University study found that making art can significantly reduce stress-related hormones in your body.

Anticipation helps pathological gamblers hold out for larger-but-later rewards

June 5, 2017
Triggering pathological gamblers to envision a future personal experience reduces their preference for an immediate reward over a larger, delayed award, according to a study published in eNeuro.

Early childhood stress affects brain's response to rewards

October 19, 2015
A Duke University-led study has pinpointed how early childhood stress affects the adult brain's response to rewards. Their findings suggest a possible pathway by which childhood stress may increase risk of depression and ...

Mind of blue: Emotional expression affects the brain's creativity network

January 4, 2016
The workings of neural circuits associated with creativity are significantly altered when artists are actively attempting to express emotions, according to a new brain-scanning study of jazz pianists.

Study: Long-term marijuana use changes brain's reward circuit

June 6, 2016
Chronic marijuana use disrupts the brain's natural reward processes, according to researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas.

This is your brain on God: Spiritual experiences activate brain reward circuits

November 29, 2016
Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. The findings will be published ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals 'exquisite selectivity' of neuronal wiring in the cerebral cortex

August 21, 2017
The brain's astonishing anatomical complexity has been appreciated for over 100 years, when pioneers first trained microscopes on the profusion of branching structures that connect individual neurons. Even in the tiniest ...

Afternoon slump in reward response

August 21, 2017
Activation of a reward-processing brain region peaks in the morning and evening and dips at 2 p.m., finds a study of healthy young men published in The Journal of Neuroscience. This finding may parallel the drop in alertness ...

Researchers find monkey brain structure that decides if viewed objects are new or unidentified

August 18, 2017
A team of researchers working at the University of Tokyo School of Medicine has found what they believe is the part of the monkey brain that decides if something that is being viewed is recognizable. In their paper published ...

Artificial neural networks decode brain activity during performed and imagined movements

August 18, 2017
Artificial intelligence has far outpaced human intelligence in certain tasks. Several groups from the Freiburg excellence cluster BrainLinks-BrainTools led by neuroscientist private lecturer Dr. Tonio Ball are showing how ...

How whip-like cell appendages promote bodily fluid flow

August 18, 2017
Researchers at Nagoya University have identified a molecule that enables cell appendages called cilia to beat in a coordinated way to drive the flow of fluid around the brain; this prevents the accumulation of this fluid, ...

Researchers make surprising discovery about how neurons talk to each other

August 17, 2017
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have uncovered the mechanism by which neurons keep up with the demands of repeatedly sending signals to other neurons. The new findings, made in fruit flies and mice, challenge ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.