Draw Yourself Happy: Drawing, Creativity + Your Brain

Forget Sudoku. Draw.

We do lots of things to promote our well being, become more resilient and ward off decline—we eat our veggies, exercise regularly, and imbibe green tea and red wine. Some of us give our brains a workout, as well, doing crossword puzzles, playing games, learning new skills or languages, or dancing (which increases volume in the hippocampus improving memory, according to studies).  Now empirical evidence confirms what many of us have felt all along, Drawing and making art are good for you.

Making art positively affects the brain and enhances stress resistance. In a peer-reviewed article, “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity, the authors stated that their research was the first to demonstrate the neural effects of visual art production on psychological resilience in adulthood.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a sample group of twenty-eight post-retirement adults (with no professional artists or art historians in the group), the research team examined the brain’s default mode network (very simply, regions of the brain associated with internal thought as opposed to action) to determine whether there was an evident change in the brains of those who made art, what they termed visual art production, or in those who evaluated pieces of art (cognitive art evaluation) resulting in different effects on the functional interplay of the brain’s default mode network.

Making Happiness: The Brain, Art + Creativity

They observed that the visual art production group showed greater spatial improvement in specific functional connectivity than the cognitive art evaluation group.  “Moreover, the functional connectivity in the visual art production group was related to psychological resilience [a protective personality characteristic that allows individuals to control negatives effects of stress and thus enables a successful and healthy functioning even in stressful life conditions].”

A different team’s recent research indicates drawing develops your brain. “The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” explains Dr. Rebecca Chamberlain, Laboratory of Experimental Psychology University of Leuven, Belgium, lead author of the article, “Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing.” In this study using a scanning method called voxel-based morphometry, the researchers studied how observational drawing tasks affect the brain, examining a cohort of forty-four graduate art students and non-art students.

They measured structural differences in the brain’s grey matter and white matter in both the art students and non-art students. They correlated grey matter and white matter volume and performance on drawing tasks. What these scans revealed is stimulating: the art students had significantly more grey matter in the cerebellum and medial frontal gyrus (areas involved with fine motor control). And, that drawing relates to changes in fine motor structures in art and non-art students. Also, the scans revealed that the art students had more grey matter in the precuneus in the parietal lobe, an area of the brain linked to a wide spectrum of integrated tasks, including creativity, visuo-spatial imagery and more. (For those still holding to the notion of artists’ right brain dominance, this study showed increased grey and white matter in both the left and right brain structures.)

Again, this is no surprise to visual artists, designers and illustrators who have held firmly to the conviction that drawing is indeed thinking and intuitively have been prime investigators of visual perception and the visual brain. In a short film, “Milton Glaser Draws & Lectures” by C. Coy, esteemed designer Glaser, who wrote a book titled Drawing is Thinking, says, “The act of drawing makes me conscious of what I’m looking at…Drawing has always been a primary way of encountering reality…Drawing is essential to understanding form.”


“… we must look upon artists as persons whose observation of sensuous impression is particularly vivid and accurate, and whose memory for these images is particularly true.”—Hermann von Helmholtz, German scientist and philosopher, 1871


Dr. Lora Likova, a cognitive scientist at Smith-Kettlewell, might agree with Glaser. She writes (Likova, 2012), “We may not be aware of the complexity of drawing, but when analyzed in detail it becomes clear that drawing is an amazing process that requires precise orchestration of multiple brain mechanisms; perceptual processing, memory, precise motor planning and motor control, spatial transformations, emotions, and other diverse higher cognitive functions, are all involved. In terms of the multiple-intelligence theory (Gardner, 1983), drawing heavily employs such categories as bodily-kinesthetic and visuo-spatial intelligence .”

This amazing process of drawing, whether observational or conceptual, depends on diverse brain regions:

  • cerebellum (major brain region): movement
  • frontal lobe: reasoning, planning, movement, emotions, problem solving
  • parietal lobe: movement and orientation, spatial relationships, recognition, perception of stimuli, linked to a role in creativity
  • occipital lobe: vision, visual processing
  • temporal lobe: perception and memory

Robert L. Solso, Ph.D., who headed the Cognition Lab at the University of Nevada-Reno, conducted MRI scans of two people drawing portraits. One subject of his study was Humphrey Ocean, named by the National Portrait Gallery in London as one of the foremost portrait artists of the 20th century, and the other, the control subject, was a Stanford graduate student who had no formal art training.In his article, “About Faces, in Art and in the Brain” (Solso 2000), Dr. Solso explains that when the scans were compared results indicated that Ocean showed greater activation in the right frontal area than did the novice, which suggests that the expert “used ‘higher order’ cognitive processing. In effect, he could be ‘thinking’ a face, as well as ‘seeing’ it.”

According to this small study, Glaser is correct, Drawing is thinking.

People who draw develop their brains but that doesn’t answer the question why it feels so good to draw. Why do we give in to this artistic impulse? Could there be a neural chemical reward resulting from this activity? Is it biologically motivated?


When you draw, dopamine is released. In Parkinson Disease patients a lack of dopamine is associated with tremors and difficulty with coordination, according to neurologist Dr. Rivka Inzelberg, Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. Dr. Inzelberg observed that Parkinson Disease patients treated with a synthetic dopamine-precursor pill, levodopa (L-DOPA) exhibited greater creative thinking. Dopamine is involved in the brain’s reward system, which also is the system associated with increasing creativity and lowering inhibitions. According to a study, “Enhanced Creative Thinking under Dopaminergic Therapy in Parkinson Disease,” “PD [Parkinson Disease] patients treated with dopaminergic drugs demonstrated enhanced verbal and visual creativity as compared to neurologically healthy controls…Dopaminergic agents might act through the reduction of latent inhibition, resulting in widening of the associative network and enriched divergent thinking.”

“Dopamine is produced in the brainstem, which is the oldest part of the brain evolutionarily speaking, but the dopamine is released in the newest region of cortex, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions, and plan our actions. Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts,” writes James E. Zull, Professor of Biology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Science and Founding Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western Reserve University.

Drawing seems to cause neural interactions that give rise to pleasure. People ask, Why do you draw? What they really want to know is if they are likely to make their brains feel as good as yours does when you draw.

So tell them, Drawing makes your brain better and happier.

Feed your brain the creative food it needs with Robin Landa’s books on design.

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About Robin Landa

Robin Landa tells brand stories, designs, teaches, and presents at international conferences. She has won lots of awards (The National Society of Arts and Letters, The National League of Pen Women, Creativity, New Jersey Authors Award, the Art Directors Club of New Jersey, Graphic Design USA, Rowan University, Kean University, Carnegie Foundation "Great Teachers of Our Time", and she was a finalist in the Wall Street Journal’s Creative Leaders competition). Robin has written 21 books about branding, design, advertising, creativity, and drawing, including the bestseller Graphic Design Solutions, 5th ed., Advertising by Design, 2nd ed., DRAW! The guided sketchbook that teaches you how to draw, and Build Your Own Brand. You can read them in Chinese or Spanish, too. As a Distinguished Professor in the Robert Busch School of Design at Kean University, Robin mentors very talented students who have gone on to successful visual communication careers. Robin works closely with marketing executives and their companies to develop brand strategy as well as enhance corporate creativity through seminars.