On March 3rd, 2016 we learned about

Drawing, sketching and doodling may sculpt your thinking

Even thought it often involves scratching lines on paper with pencil or ink, your brain handles drawing very differently from writing. Regardless of the degree of realism in whatever you’re rendering, working out some spatial relationships on paper can change your stress levels, your focus and your memories of that moment. In the long run, repeated drawing sessions may even reshape some of the networking in your frontal cortex.

The act of drawing counts more than the drawing itself

While it’s often dismissed as an activity for idle hands, doodling can be very stimulating and productive. Concepts and relationships represented visually can often be understood and compare more easily, even revealing information to the doodler themselves. When doodles aren’t the primary focus of someone’s time, filling out the margins alongside your art history lecture notes (ahem) can actually help you retain information and details of the lecture itself. Even doodles of objects or shapes unrelated the topic at hand can still ground you more than listeners drifting off into their own thoughts.

As much as drawing has obvious connections to visual representation, the act of drawing may not be as dependent on our sight as you’d expect. In an experiment with blind and sighted but blindfolded participants, people were able to learn to draw pictures of objects they were tracing with their off-hand. Both sets of people showed similar activity in their brains in an area researchers began to think of as a “neural sketch-pad.” Practicing this way seemed to then benefit other spatial memory tasks, especially in the blind participants.

Developing a flexible neural network

The long-term effect of all this neural activity may be some interesting shift in neural priorities. fMRI Scans of long-time artists’s brains show a shift in activity from decision-making to emotional centers as they draw. In the longer term, artist brains seem to show less regulation in some of their neural networks. Some structural elements, like myelination, the reinforcement of specific connections in the brain normally associated with efficiency and learning, were surprisingly weak. It seems that these looser connections allowed for more free-form associations, or “blind variation,” which proved to be distinct modes of thinking from when the same artist was later evaluating their own ideas.

These observations don’t necessarily prove that these artists’ brains developed this way thanks to their drawing, or if their mental-wiring simply predisposed them to creative thinking. However, our brains do seem to show a considerable amount of plasticity, and so it seems possible that flexing one’s drawing muscles would eventually help shape our thinking. Which might just lead us to more doodling.

Source: Visualizing Art by The Dana Foundation, BrainFacts.org

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