Studies agree: Creativity makes us feel good

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This article is not medical advice. If you have concerns, please consult your physician or medical professional.

“Creativity,” according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, “is the ability to produce or develop original work, theories, techniques or thoughts. A creative individual typically displays originality, imagination and expressiveness.” Generating more inspiration, creativity is good for health and well-being, especially facing the anxieties suffered over the past couple of years.


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Painting, crafting, colouring, moulding a blob of clay or making music, all forms of creativity help “to focus the mind, and have even been compared to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body,” Ashley Stahl said in Forbes, July 25, 2018. “Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant.” The marvel of creativity sprouts from the brain, involving several neural networks.

Scientific studies suggest that three brain networks provide the teamwork for creativity, the default mode network, the executive control network and the salience network.

“The default mode network is what’s happening in the brain in a resting (but not sleeping) state, the brain’s ‘idle state,’” Dr. Grant H. Brenner said in “Your Brain on Creativity,” Psychology Today, Feb. 22, 2018. Directing decision-making, “the executive control network monitors what’s going on, manages emotional parts of the brain (and) directs resources like attention.” The third network, the salience network, “determines which sorts of things tend to be noticed and which tend to fly under the radar,” Brenner added.

Working together, the brain networks produce and evaluate ideas and select which ideas are worth creating among many options. The studies suggested that creativity might run in families, and that children are inspired by watching others being creative; unstructured play leads to creativity. Best of all, every individual has the potential for creativity.


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Researchers found “dense functional connections” dispersed in the frontal and parietal cortices, Brenner stated. Identified areas “are core hubs for the different networks, including, for example, the left posterior cingulate for default mode, left anterior insula for salience, and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for executive networks.” The brain activity related to creativity led to the field of art therapy.

Studies have long shown that artistic endeavours can act as intervention for depression and anxiety and enhance a general sense of wellness. The newer field of neuroesthetics “uses brain imaging, brainwave technology and biofeedback to gather scientific evidence of how we respond to the arts,”  Brittany Harker Martin, an associate professor, leadership, policy and governance with an arts education specialization at the University of Calgary, said in “Brain research shows the arts promote mental health” in The Conversation. The results indicate proof “that the arts engage the mind in novel ways, tap into our emotions in healthy ways and make us feel good.”

Concentrating on creativity without judgment can help people coping with illnesses and chronic stress. With art, cancer patients and others suffering with diseases and conditions can convey their feelings through paint or sculpture when no words can express their anguish or hopes.

In Canada, art therapy became part of the health-care system in 1968 with the establishment of the first training program at Toronto Art Therapy Institute. Professional art therapists guide diverse clients to better well-being through creativity and psychotherapy. (In the United States, art therapy began with psychologist Margaret Naumberg in the 1940s. Naumberg named her program “dynamically oriented art therapy.”)


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“Among healthy adults, some solitary activities, such as colouring, can help reduce stress and negative feelings,” Girija Kaimal said in “How art can heal,” American Scientist, July-August 2020 issue. She noted that an art therapist can aid the process to “significantly enhance positive mood and boost measures of well-being, such as self-confidence and self-perception of creative abilities.”

Kaimal noted that caregivers suffering with burnout as well feel better after making art. “Many responded that the experience distracted them from their daily concerns and allowed them to focus elsewhere,” and that “it was the first time that some participants had a chance to process the psychological and existential challenges of dealing with cancer.” Afterward, they proudly took their artwork home or to their workplace “and often can’t believe they made it.”

Art in classrooms has remarkable benefits, although it is not prioritized yet. As part of the curriculum, art increases “academic performance and the development of innovative thinking,” Harker Martin stated. Creating art can create a state of mindfulness and facilitates different parts of the brain than linear and logical thinking use.

Giving suggestions for mindfulness through art-making, Martin says to be “willing to make mistakes,” to give the logical, linear parts of the brain a rest by not talking too much while creating and to play music without lyrics. She suggests reusable materials are a good choice, such as whiteboards and markers, or play dough, so creating can be enjoyed without the worry about making something “that looks good.”

Splash on the rainbow of paint, move your body to music and sculpt that smiling puppet character in your imagination. No matter what form of art you choose, “the neurochemicals that are released feel good, and that is your brain’s way of thanking you for the experience,” Martin noted. Cook, do fabric arts, plant seeds … art is good for mental health, for physical health, and is good for the soul.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston. A sketch a day keeps the grumps away.


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