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How Doodling Lights Up the Brain

by Kalia KelmensonJune 20, 2017
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Photo Credit: Fly_dragonfly/Tinkstock

A few years back, I came across an old box that held notebooks from my college courses. As I leafed through the pages, I smiled at my prolific use of the margins as a space for doodling. A new study shows that in the act of doodling, rather than simply wasting ink, I was giving my brain a boost.

The pilot study published in The Arts in Psychotherapy out of Drexel University measured blood flow to the prefrontal cortex using fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy). Led by Girija Kaimal, EdD, authors of the study looked at how three types of drawing; doodling around a pre-drawn circle, coloring in a mandala, and free drawing on a blank sheet of paper, affected the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with our brain’s reward system.

Participants were given three minutes with each type of drawing, followed by 2 minutes of resting with their eyes closed. The study involved both self described artists and those who did not consider themselves artistic.

Findings showed that blood flow increased when participants were engaged in any of the creative self-expression conditions, and it dropped back down during the rest periods. There was not a significant difference in the reward center activation for ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’.

Though small, the study supports “the hypothesis that self-perceptions of creativity would improve following the sequence of drawing tasks,” and it indicates “that even a short series of creative self-expression or art-making tasks completed in approximately 15–20 min can result in individuals perceiving themselves as having good ideas and being able to solve problems.”

The study offers hope for those looking for a way out of addictive behaviors, eating disorders, and mood disorders; and for those trying to help them. It shows that a relatively simple and safe tool such as drawing has the potential to light up our brains in a way that can offer an effective path towards freedom from such unhealthy patterns.

I find myself taking a second look at the empty pages of my journal, and considering the colored pencils that have come home from school in my kid’s packs. I like the idea that the mere act of creative expression, regardless of how it looks when I’m finished, has the potential to leave me feeling alert and alive, and maybe even inspired.


Kalia Kelmenson

Kalia Kelmenson founded Maui Mind and Body to support women's health. She is the creator of Core Strength Balance and Mind Body Booty Camp and enjoys moonlighting as the reviews editor at Spirituality & Health. Kalia explores the fascinating intersection of fitness and mind-body health. Find inspiration for your movement practice from research and stories that are emerging from this intriguing field.


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