“A drawing is the three-way relationship between substance, surface and body. It activates the relationships between the eye and the hand, the hand and the tool, the body and the drawing surface. The elements of the drawing itself, the drawing marks on the empty page and between the eye of the artist and what lies beyond what the artist can actually touch.” Amy Sillman
“I am not creative” – “I can’t draw!”, are the most common reactions I encounter when people learn that I’m working as an artist. Regrettably, the main focus of art production appears to revolve around a “beautiful outcome”, the ability to draw or paint a stunning picture. You are either good or not and if you aren’t, why carry on?
This misconception results in the profound benefits of engaging with the visual arts on your emotional health, the fostering of creative thinking skills, and art as a tool to strengthen psychological resilience being mostly overlooked.
Both art appreciation and the actual creating of visual arts can have a significant impact on the development of a young person. In fact, your brain will benefit from engaging with art at any stage of your life and you neither have to be a good artist nor know a lot about art to reap the rewards from experiencing it.
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties” – Erich Fromm
Creativity requires strong self-believe, the ability to persevere despite failure and setbacks, it’s about following an idea, an intuition, it requires untiring curiosity. Carrying on, despite of what other people might say or of what your peers might say. It’s about seeing information in a different light, putting unrelated elements together, noticing patterns, inconsistencies, using everyday experiences, getting inspired by anything and everything and the need to try things in a different way over and over again.
Although, you might have an end goal in view, the creative path won’t be linear and can’t always be planned out from start to finish. There isn’t one correct answer, more of an open-ended answer to an open-ended problem. Being creative involves failing a lot, failure is indeed not a bad outcome, failure makes you look at all the pieces in a new light, it requires you to look at them differently, you need to find a new way of solving your answers and posing your questions.
In line with an easy to follow universal marking and evaluation system, most school settings teach children to deal with problem solving in a specific way, including the need to follow certain steps and leading to one correct answer. As Dr. Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, a research scientist at Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, explains, “If a task poses a question with a specific set of steps required to answer it, there is no space for creativity.”
Another stumbling block in acquiring creative thinking skills is “creative mortification”, a term used by psychologist Ron Beghetto, describing an unwillingness or outright refusal to participate in any creative work after having experienced negative feedback on your work, and lacking the ability to deal with the resulting negative emotions felt. This usually happens to children at a very young age, when they find it more difficult to regulate their emotions and don’t yet have the necessary resilience to deal with this negative experience.
In my opinion, a young person losing faith in their artistic creativity early on, will very likely refrain from using the arts as a tool for acquiring creative thinking skills. As a result, they might be less likely to explore their own ideas in other non-art related areas, as their motivation for exploring creative thinking has been discouraged at an early age.
There are individuals, who from the outset have a highly creative mind, a talent or inborn creativity, which makes them explore the world in a different and more creative way. Being creative is part of who they are, their very essence. Studies researching the connection between attention and creativity have brought to light that truly creative individuals appear to have a “diffused or “leaky attention”, which translates into their having great difficulties in filtering out external sensory stimuli whilst trying to carry out cognitive tasks. In contrast, individuals with lower creative talent are able to block out distractions from their environment and give full attention to the task at hand.
Although having a “leaky attention” would be a real disadvantage in particular exam situations, it nevertheless leads to creative individuals being able to notice more in their environment and doing so on a continuous basis. They will notice things most people overlook; therefore, the creative mind has more information to play with and furthermore the ability to create new and unusual connections between various seemingly unrelated chunks of information.
The creative brain has the ability to better regulate thoughts and behaviours whilst being involved in a creative task, getting into a state of flow and in this setting tuning out all distractions. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
In addition, creatives tend to be better equipped at managing their emotions, especially with regards to negative feedback, and are able to just carry on with their vision. They have a higher level of resilience when faced with obstacles; these obstacles often leading them to be even more creative.
What Happens in Your Brain When You are Drawing?
In a study conducted to investigate whether drawing could increase the brain’s plasticity and using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to establish what is going on in the brain, Dr Lora Likova, worked with a cohort of congenitally blind individuals, who had been taught to explore raised line tactile images with the help of their fingers and learnt for a week to draw from memory.
Congenitally blind people don’t show any activation in the visual area of their brain, however those participants who had learned to draw from memory showed a “dramatic enhancement of the activation, very specific to the primary visual cortex or what would have been the primary visual cortex in these congenitally blind subjects.” Dr Likova’s study shows a rather remarkable and fast means of neural plasticity using drawing.
In a different study, researchers wanted to find out if art appreciation and active art production would have different effects on the brain. Neurologists Anne Bolwerk and Christian Maihofer, observed that the visual art participation group showed greater psychological resilience and a higher level of functional brain connectivity than the art appreciation cohort.
The study noted stronger connections of brain areas and an involvement of brain regions which are activated during introspection; the employment of cognitive strategies in order to reduce negative emotional experiences; the regulation of emotions; greater self- awareness; and enhanced memory processing. It has been noted that the functional connectivity of most of these areas are vital for a healthy resilience.
Whilst more research needs to be conducted in this field, the neurologists put this phenomenon down to the fact that “the production of visual art involves more than 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 in a creative activity.”
This intriguing connection between emotional and creative skills has led to researchers from Yale University exploring this feature in the development of children. A course that was carried out over six sessions with children from selected primary schools in Santander, Spain, showed a significant increase in creative behaviour, enhanced skills for problem finding and idea generation. Interestingly, a follow up two months later, demonstrated that these positive effects started diminishing, which indicates a need for a continuous arts based intervention to achieve longer lasting results.
Students who score higher on the TTCT Torrance Test of Creative Thinking are more likely to have been exposed to art and art education. They are generally more willing to take greater risks, have a more pronounced imagination, show higher levels of creativity and, are finding it easier to engage with cooperative learning and expression.
Nonetheless, visual arts appreciation should not be underestimated, various studies have found that viewing paintings leads to an activation of a range of brain regions and in particular regions of the brain that are associated with “vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions” as well as areas which deal with the “processing of new information to give it meaning”.
Neurobiologist Semir Zeki scanned the brain activity of people looking at art and was able to detect the release of dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter that plays a part in how we feel pleasure. Looking at art appears to create a sensation similar to falling in love or looking at a loved one.
The perception of art is a very aesthetic experience which stimulates areas of the brain that are mainly associated with visuo-spatial exploration and attention. Viewing art activates your mirror neurons; brain cells that respond to the observation of a performed action. It can lead to what is called “embodied cognition” – one of the reasons you get drawn into a painting – perhaps making you feel afloat like Botticelli’s angels in “The Birth of Venus” or almost to feel paint splatters hit the canvas standing in front of a Pollock.
Furthermore, visiting museums and art galleries has been shown to lower stress levels, improve memory, and engage and strengthen your empathy. A study conducted by the University of Westminster found that study participants who visited an art gallery during their lunch break reported a lowering of their stress levels, this observation could be supported by findings that the cortisol levels of the participants fell after a 35 minute gallery visit. Visiting an art gallery can help with recovery from mental exhaustion in the same way as spending time in nature.
In 2017, a study carried out on preschoolers found that cortisol levels, and thus stress, were lowered if the children were given the chance to participate in music, dance and visual arts classes.
Research carried out by the University of Arkansas found that children who visited galleries and viewed art, improved their critical thinking skills and had an improved historical empathy. Viewing works of art helped them to understand what life would have been like for people who lived in a different time and place. These experiences contribute to a general openness to diversity, different ways of living, thinking, and experiencing of the world. The children also showed a much higher level of tolerance, as well as an enhanced appreciation, interest and understanding for art and culture. In a world where emotional intelligence is increasingly being understood as being essential to happiness and fulfilment, visual arts can play a fundamental part in supporting people of all ages.
Visual arts engagement should play an important part in every child’s learning experience. By freely experimenting with a variety of materials, whilst simultaneously expressing their emotions and ideas, these experiences will help to form important connections in the developing brain of a child. As outlined in this article, the arts represent a perfect vehicle for engaging a young person with the concept of creativity. It will become natural to them to approach a problem from more than one point of view, and to know that there might be multiple answers to a specific problem, or question. They will be able to apply an open mind and not only work with past experiences. The combined experience of art production and art appreciation will maximise the effect art can have on a young person, be it brain development; mental wellbeing; experiencing flow; strengthening creative thinking skills; learning psychological resilience or becoming a more empathetic, tolerant open-minded thinker.
For advice on how to support children in art, see advice sheet PA414 Supporting High Learning Potential in Art and Design and the blog Art: Adding Extra Colour to the High Potential Learner’s World
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About the author: Nina Vangerow is an artist, educator and online content creator with a MA in Ancient History. Teaching art and craft classes, Nina has developed a particular interest in the correlation between the arts, creativity and mental wellbeing. As a mother of a teenager with high learning potential, she has been a Potential Plus UK member and volunteer since 2012.