A&O EXCERPT – creating art activates brain pathway associated with pleasure – 2017



Excerpt from recent research


REWARD pathways in the brain were found activated in an experiment conducted by Kaimai (et al. 2017).  They  used functional near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) “to assess mPFC activation (reward pathways) for three different forms of visual self expression.”  They found …”significant changes between the rest conditions (eyes closed) and the visual self-expression conditions (Coloring, doodling and free drawing).”


Visual self-expression helps with attention and improves health and well-being. Few studies have examined reward pathway activation during different visual art tasks. This pilot study is the first to examine brain activation via functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) during three distinct drawing tasks—coloring, doodling, and free drawing. Participants (11 men, 15 women; 8 artists, 16 non-artists) engaged in each task separated by equal intervals of rest in a block design experimental protocol. Additional data included a pre- and post survey of self-perceptions of creativity, prior experience with drawing tasks, and reflections on study participation. Overall, the three visual arts tasks resulted in significant activation of the medial prefrontal cortex compared to the rest conditions. The doodling condition resulted in maximum activation of the medial prefrontal cortex compared to coloring and free drawing; however, differences between the drawing conditions were not statistically significant. Emergent differences were seen between artists and non-artists for coloring and doodling. All three visual self-expression tasks activated the medial prefrontal cortex, indicating potential clinical applications of reward perception through art making. Participants improved in their self-perceptions of problem solving and having good ideas. Participants found the drawing tasks relaxing but wanted more time per task. Further study with varied art media and longer time on tasks are needed to determine potential interactions between participants’ backgrounds and reward activation.

In an introduction to their study, the authors provided a useful survey of recent findings in brain science associated with making art and observing art:

Visual art and the brain

“Visual forms of self-expression, such as coloring books, are becoming increasingly popular among adults. Little is known, however, about the differences in brain activation and the perceived rewards of engaging visual expression. This study sought to examine differences in brain activation during different drawing activities measured with fNIRS. Although there are currently no fNIRS studies that examine activation during visual expression, there are a number of investigations that have demonstrated the activation of the prefrontal cortex during visual arts activities using other technologies. For example, Chamberlain et al. (2014) used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning to study the brain regions associated with drawing skills and artistic training. Their findings suggested that being able to draw from observation was associated with an increase in gray matter density in the left anterior cerebellum and the right medial frontal gyrus in the prefrontal cortex. Schlegel et al. (2015) showed that 3 months of art training resulted in changes in prefrontal white matter. Bolwerk, Mack-Andrick, Lang, Dörfler, and Maihöfner (2014) found that there was a clear difference between producing art compared to viewing art. Visual art production has been shown to improve the functional connectivity in several brain areas, particularly between the parietal and frontal cortices, as well as psychological resistance to change (Bolwerk et al., 2014). In their recent study, Miall, Nam, and Tchalenko (2014) explored the neural systems engaged in decision making related to drawing observed pictures. Ventral and lateral occipital areas were increasingly activated when participants were drawing faces rather than drawing abstract objects (Miall et al., 2014).

Although these findings suggest that visual art production results in stronger brain connectivity than cognitive art evaluation or viewing art, there is evidence that even passive engagement in art affects the prefrontal cortex (Bolwerk et al., 2014). For example, when viewing art, a reward circuitry is engaged that activates the ventral striatum, including the nucleus accumbens, along with the interconnected medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala (Lacey et al., 2011). Using functional MRI (fMRI) technology, Lacey et al. (2011) found that art imagery alone activated the reward circuitry whereas matched nonart images did not. Likewise, activation of the mPFC, along with the rest of the reward circuitry, occurred while the individual was viewing beautiful visual images or architectural spaces (Chatterjee & Vartanian, 2014). Comparing the brain activity of participants who were emotionally primed with portrait art with those who were not, Baeken et al. (2012) used fMRI and found that the former displayed higher activity in the left midline superior frontal cortex, whereas the latter showed higher right medial frontal cortical activity.”