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Art Therapy and Neurobiology: Impact of Artmaking on the Brain

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

With the rapid development and innovations occurring in the field of neuroscience within the past few years, there has been more emphasis on how neuroscience can inform the field of art therapy. Growing support has been shown by many researchers in drawing connections between how creating art can impact one’s neurobiology over time. The field of neuroscience is constantly evolving and changing as technology advances and research opens up new ways of understanding. It is a widely held belief that the connection between art therapy and neuroscience can have a positive impact on how we come to understand the impact of artmaking on our well-being and mental health.

Art therapy research often highlights the numerous benefits witnessed and experienced by practitioners and clients, including increased emotional expression, self-regulation, self-awareness and effective communication of one’s needs. According to an article on the use of imaging technologies in art therapy research by King, Juliet & Kaimal (2019), “Art therapy relies heavily on creative, symbolic self-expression as a method of engaging and objectifying less conscious cognition, emotion and memories, and in this way makes it easier for a person to “see” and eventually put words to psychic processes that are not otherwise readily attainable.” In this way, there is a growing desire to provide evidence-based, scientific research on the ways art therapy transforms one’s emotional state and impacts thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

What artwork is created and what processes are used contribute to the complex ways researchers are continuing to explore and better understand how art therapy techniques and approaches impact brain structures, promote the connection of new neural pathways and increase positive mood states. Many neuroscientists are looking at specific brain activity in parts of the brain’s nervous system that deal with problem solving, fine motor and gross motor skills, mirroring, attachment, decision making, attention, focus, logical thinking, communication and relationship building.

According to Hass-Cohen (2015), “Imagery can be generated through sensory, perceptual, emotional and cognitive processing and contributes to the integrated subcortical and cortical functions which allows inner experiences to be consciously expressed as a source of creativity”, which suggests that the images that we decide to externalize onto our paper or through our clay often stems from complex neurological systems. It is believed that in artmaking, our brains are tapping into multiple streams of information, memories, emotions and sensations as we develop our intention and idea for what will transpire on the outside. There is an additional layer as well when we attempt to apply meaning to the art that we are creating and often that utilizes an interwoven number of neural structures.

More recently, articles on the benefits of art therapy call attention to the bilateral brain integration processes that occur when both hemispheres of the brain are utilized simultaneously to generate new connections and pathways. By stimulating right brain processes through sensorimotor movements and engagement with art materials along with left brain processes of verbal discussion, artmaking has the ability to promote new brain connections, known as neuroplasticity. Research on trauma and artmaking look at immune system responses, changes in body temperature, breathing rates, and cortisol levels as indicators of stress and relaxation.

As research continues to grow and develop, we will gain a greater understanding of the physical changes that occur on a neurobiological level when creating art. As you engage in your own art process, consider paying attention to how your body feels before and after you engage in an art session. It might be helpful to conduct a body scan or complete a body outline drawing in which you intentionally focus on the sensations in your body as you become more in tune with subtle changes occurring in yourself.

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Articles Cited in This Post:

Hass-Cohen, N. & Findlay (2015). Art Therapy and Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity and Resiliency: Skills and Practices. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company

King, Juliet & Kaimal, Girija. (2019). Approaches to Research in Art Therapy Using Imaging Technologies. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 13. 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00159.


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