Saturday, October 17, 2015

How art changes your brain - the well-being value of drawing and painting to older people

This is about a recent study about the impact of drawing and painting and art appreciation on the mental health and well-being of older people.

Left Brain Right Brain
A recent post to my Facebook Page has been very well received - and I didn't want to deprive those of you who are not on Facebook!
Would you like to generate "a significant improvement in psychological resilience"? Start drawing and painting in your old age! Art appreciation doesn't work as well as actually making and creating!
Study Finds Making Art May Keep Our Brains Healthy | Hyperallergic 
The article referenced above summarises the research.

For those who would like to know more you can read the actual research findings in this study report How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity

It starts by making a statement which was new to me.
Recent research on visual art has focused on its psychological and physiological effects, mostly in clinical populations. It has shown that visual art interventions have stabilizing effects on the individual by reducing distress, increasing self-reflection and self-awareness, altering behaviour and thinking patterns, and also by normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, or even cortisol levels[1], [2], [3], [4], [5].
It then explains the hypothesis of the study and what they did to test it. I'm missing out all the deeply scientific bits below!


The hypothesis was that participation in 10-week-long visual art groups may result in psychological changes and may alter the functional interplay of the DMN.

The brain's default mode network (DMN) is the network of regions of the brain which remain active even when an individual is at rest. It's important because it is the DMN network which is engaged when an individual is engaged in internal tasks involving making pictures e.g. daydreaming, imagining the future and retrieving memories.

It tends not to work when we are focused on the achievement of tasks and executing actions.
Distinct brain areas of a certain resting state network, the default mode network (DMN), are thought to be associated with cognitive processes such as introspection, self-monitoring, prospection, episodic and autobiographic memory, and comprehension of the emotional states and intentions of others [7][8][9].
My reading of this is that, in essence, they were testing whether stimulation of the DMN through active and practical development of visual art (eg drawing and painting) might 'fire up' the DMN network in the brain which in turn might help older people to:
  • be more self-aware of their personal condition
  • help them retain memories better
  • better understand the motives and actions of others
In other words, these are all the aspects which can deteriorate when mental well-being deteriorates as people become all older.


One of the reasons for the study is that little is known about how different types of activity that stimulate different parts of the brain affect the well-being of retired people after retirement age.

Most research to date has focused on people prior to retirement age.

The study involved a non-clinical (i.e. not in hospital) sample of 28 post-retirement adults were reviewed before and after two 10 week long art interventions.  They found people for the study through adverts.

The participants were randomly assigned to two groups which were as follows:
  • visual art production group - 14 participants actively produced art in an art class
  • cognitive art evaluation group - 14 participants cognitively evaluated artwork at a museum
Professional visual artists and art historians were excluded from the study - as well as people suffering from serious physical or mental disorders or taking psychotropic drugs!

profile of the particpants in the study

The study collected data about
  • the functional connectivity between parts of the brain's default mode network and 
  • the impact of the two different types of activity on the networks in the brains of the participants in the two different groups. 
It tested the pschological resilience of an individual to withstand stress and to live healthy lives
To understand the psychological relevance of functional changes, we assessed psychological resilience, i.e. stress resistance. Psychological resilience is conceptualized as a protective personality characteristic that allows individuals to control negatives effects of stress and thus enables a successful and healthy functioning even in stressful life conditions [17], [18].

The activities

The art interventions were:
  • 10 x 2 hour sessions occurring on a weekly basis
  • art appreciation at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (Germany). 
  • art classes were held in the rooms of the Art Education Department of the Museum

Visual art production class

This can be summarised as follows:
  • Focus: discovering and developing the participant's own creativity
  • Facilitator: A visual artist trained as an art educator
  • Process: Introduction of different artistic methods and materials used in drawing and painting, and the participants were then able to experiment with different materials and techniques.
  • Sessions: Each session adhered closely to a precisely defined schedule, which included a sequence of thematic foci such as blind or fast drawing, drawing in the space/room, drawing still lives and figures, drawing with music, using colours, and composition.
  • Output: Each participant was encouraged to produce visual art and find their own personal form of artistic expression. 

Cognitive art evaluation class

This was effectively the 'control' group to determine whether any changes might be attributed to: group interaction, art reception, and cognitive activity, group activity and cognitive activity - which were considered to be present in both intervention groups.
  • Focus: considered, analysed, and interpreted selected paintings and sculptures
  • Facilitator:  a qualified art historian
  • Process: The art historian helped encourage group discussion by providing expert background information and explaining associations between the work of art and everyday experiences.
  • Sessions: participants were required to consider two pieces of art that involved universal human concerns such as age, youth, love, lust, violence, the experience of nature, or faith. 
  • Output: Group discussions according to a pre-defined schedule
Brains of the participants were scanned before and after the interventions - including the frontal lobes and the visual cortex.

If you study the article you can view the brain scans.

The conclusions

The conclusions they drew included the following
Our results revealed that visual art production leads to improved interaction, particularly between the frontal and posterior and temporal brain regions, and thus may become an important prevention tool in managing the burden of chronic diseases in older adults.
the lack of significant improvement in resilience in the cognitive art evaluation group strengthens the suggestion that visual art production has an impact on psychological resilience.

In other words - the physical and mental act of making art might make you more resilient and less like to suffer deteriorations in your mental well-being of the type associated with the chronic diseases of older people.


Citation: Bolwerk A, Mack-Andrick J, Lang FR, Dörfler A, Maihöfner C (2014) How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101035. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101035
Editor: Yong He, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China
Received: November 17, 2013; Accepted: June 2, 2014; Published: July 1, 2014
Copyright: © 2014 Bolwerk et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


  1. This is absolutely brilliant article and I have seen alot of the evidence of this myself when helping others learn to draw. Drawing comes from the brain and can be learned at any age which is so exciting! Thanks for the article.

  2. Hey there!
    I think that your findings are amazing and would prove helpful for the paper i'm writing for school. The online research I have been conducting has proved that the arts helps more than just those in their older age, or with chronic illness. Through my online research I have found that art also increases the cognitive learning abilities one possess as well as has a huge societal impact that extends with each generation. I’ve also come to learn that the visual arts are not the only forms of that provide people with these amazing benefits! The physical arts such as music, dance, and theater also have amazing benefits.


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