Creativity and the Brain

Artists BrushesCould it be time for you to get out your painter’s smock and brushes?

A new study by the Mayo Clinic may be just the motivation you need. The clinic recently published findings of their four-year study on risk factors for cognitive aging.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Rosebud Roberts selected 256 participants aged 85 or above, whose cognitive level was deemed within normal limits. They were interested in looking at measures of depressive symptoms, chronic conditions, and midlife onset of hypertension within this group as predictors of mild cognitive impairment.

Researchers took baseline measurements of participants by using a combination of medical records, self-report questionnaires, and other methods. They were repeated at 15-month intervals, and results were adjusted to reflect differences in gender and education.

Their findings were pretty interesting.

Participants who engaged in artistic pursuits proved 73% less likely to develop problems associated with mild cognitive impairment, including memory loss and executive function-related issues.

Crafting activities, which included ceramics, sewing, and woodworking, were associated with a 43% decrease in cognitive impairment risk.

Researchers also looked at the social element of creative activity and the impact that had on participants. By that, I mean the opportunity to socialize with others that comes with participating in a book club, attending concerts, or traveling.

Engaging in these kinds of activities was associated with a 55% decrease in likelihood of developing cognitive impairments. Also, participants who started using a computer later in life also saw their risk of impairment decrease.

Creative activity may decrease the likelihood of developing cognitive impairments @RuthBuczynski Click To Tweet

The caveat with this, though, is that the people in this study who benefited from tapping into their artistic side began doing so in middle age (and their creativity continues into the present).

We don’t really know if a person who started these kinds of activities later in life would get the same benefit.

And we also don’t know if perhaps this is a selection issue. Maybe people who follow their artistic inclinations have a hardier neurological constitution in the first place.

Smiling mature female artist painting at easel in art studioIt’s never too late to take up sculpture or painting, it’s just that the neural benefits seem to be more pronounced if people don’t wait until retirement to begin.

If you are interested in reading more about this study, you can find it in its entirety in the April 8th edition of Neurology.

At this point, however, it’s important for me to issue my standard warning about how to interpret correlational studies. While these results have merit, we cannot draw the same conclusions as we could had this been a randomized, controlled experiment.

This was a longitudinal study, and that buttresses these findings somewhat. But on the other hand, the study was conducted for only 4 years. Other longitudinal studies go on for decades.

Even so, neuroscience research often begins with simple observations about what’s helpful in working with patients (and what isn’t).

And in our Brain-Smart webinar series, we’ve pulled together leading experts to help us understand what interventions work, and why. The webinars are free to watch at the time of broadcast – you just need to sign up.

But for now, let’s get back to the emphasis on encouraging creativity as a brain-healthy behavior (and as early as possible in life). What are some the best strategies you’ve used to convince patients to make and sustain similar changes sooner rather than later? Please leave a comment below.


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  3. Karen, Art Therapy Student, Michigan says:

    Thank you so much for presenting this webinar! I have been doing a little studying on my own in regards to the brain but find it even more fascinating when I hear how such information can be applied in therapeutic work. I would like to learn more. Does the NICABM offer student discounts?

  4. Linda Stoler MA CCC-SLP says:

    As an SLP for 50 years I used the Multi-Modal Method music, movement, manual motion or sign language and mindful meditation with children and seniors. These tools support
    brain transformation and creative expression. My book, Transforming Your Agin Brain, is a guide to help boomers and seniors to minimize the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia. I conduct workshops/seminars in Florida and New England. I’m am artist who understands the value of creativity as a vital component of healthy aging.

  5. Ceil Hoffer, retired teacher, Branchport, NY. says:

    I was a teacher most of my adult life. I fancied myself as a writer also, even though I never had time to finish anything that was ready to go to a publisher…… but I dreamed of it. As a child I was deeply involved in crafting things from paper, string, cardboard…. anything I could see a use for in my crafts.
    When I retired, I did sit around and enjoy it for about 6 months, but then I realized that I had to find something to DO. So I began to craft again.

    This time, I started to work with fabric. I was not really interested in sewing or quilting or anything like that, but I made “banners”, “fabricards”, garden glove puppies, and decoupaged plates, platters, and tables. I sold at craft shows. And then, when we moved to NY, I discovered The Windmill, and established a booth there. It was a craft and produce fair open every Saturday during the season.
    I was very happy there. I settled into making decoupaged plates of different sizes and decoupaged tables that my husband built for me, all with fabric, including photoplates with family pictures and pet pictures, plus appropriate fabric.
    I’m not doing any of it now. I can feel it. It must be part of my life. I feel unproductive, no matter what I do. I don’t seem to be doing anything, and yet I am cooking, cleaning, watching tv, going on the computer……. but I feel faded and useless. I’m forgetting a lot more than I used to, and yet my doctor says I do not have anything to blame except old age. I believe I must begin to craft again.

    I don’t seem to have the time. But I know logically that I DO have the time. I have plenty of free time. Your article above, and this whole series of webinars has awakened me to what’s wrong right now. I need to get busy. Just the activity of connecting to nicabm and taking notes and reading your articles has made me feel good again, like myself. It’s time to work again. The theories about art or writing, or even music are really hitting the target. They’re telling me to GET UP and GET BUSY again. Thank you for everything. I look forward to reading everything you send, especially when it deals with the right brain. During my Masters, I was tested for hemispheric orientation and found to be very right-brained.

  6. Katherine L. Ziegler, PhD Psychologist, San Leandro, CA, USA says:

    I have always used expressive techniques, including painting and movement, with my psychotherapy clients. Since 2009, I have been a trained SoulCollage® Facilitator and give regular workshops in this practice, as well as using it with individual clients and with couples. The process combines art with gestalt-type interaction with one’s creations: collaging with found images onto 8″x5″ cards, then using structured yet free-form dialog with “the cards” (as representing different loci of consciousness) which each give their responses to life questions one asks.

    Especially with repeat participants in my workshops, I see reduced depression and anxiety, increased feelings of calmness, security and happiness, increased pleasurable engagement with life and work, and greater self-acceptance and ability to relate well to others.

  7. Charlene Cox-Clifton, Music Los Alamos, NM says:

    If you contact Scott McBride, the new president of Music Teacher National Association. He just sent out an email on the extensive research showing that those students who study Instrumental/Piano are much more focused and do better in school. The researcher was an older man and after he wrote the research paper he took up learning to play the violin. I kind of remember(not sure) but I think this professor was from Harvard also.

  8. Leonora Orr, Artist / Educator, Kaua'i says:

    Painter for over 50 years, the Arts, in general, definitely cultivate and encourage

    a peaceful, open, creative and inspiring life, yet, one must be

    continually vigilant for those who want to use the energy for their

    own agendas, be it business, fame, fortune, notoreity of all sorts……..the

    motivation must be present, wide, longterm, O P E N,

    to serve and benefit all,

    Leonora Orr, Artist / Educator / Gardener

  9. Marguerite Zanagrillo, Owner dollhouse store, Smithtown, NY says:

    I am 86 years old and aside from actively engaging in my business, I write short stories, some for children, (of which three I’ve published) and some for adults. I have now embarked on writing a mystery novel that requires a great deal of research.
    In doing so I read a book on forensic anthropology. It was so interesting that I read it three times, the third time I took notes. I have continued my search for more information on this subject by reading other books, some fiction and some non-fiction. The more I read the more I realize that there is so much more to stimulate the brain and to enhance ones life.

  10. Mary Wolken PhD health practitioner Tucson AZ says:

    The blessings of my work with people is helping them rediscover their creative gifts long buried. When this heart inspired genius is freed better health, fun and prosperity follow.

  11. Caroline, psychotherapist, Dublin says:

    Interesting, thanks.

  12. Chuck Maples, Learning Specialist, Oneonta, NY says:

    For anyone interested in wading into writing, I’d recommend the books of Natalie Goldberg (starting with Writing Down the Bones). Her background is in both creative writing and Zen meditation, and her practice combines writing and mindfulness practice.

    • Maia/Writer says:

      You might like Deena Metzger’s Writing For Your Life.
      Blessings, Maia

  13. Judith Powell, Salisbury, NC (retired) says:

    Even though RETIREMENT is inevitable for most of us, we DO NOT retire from everything!
    We DO RETIRE TO THE THINGS THAT MAKE US HAPPY. and no longer listening for the alarm when we choose to get an extra couple of “winks”. Being with friends, continuing education, just being mindful of our daily lives can add to the pleasures of life.
    And for this article we are grateful.

  14. Peggy, COTA, New York says:

    Occupational Therapy has been the leaders in cognitive processing through arts and crafts. Take a look at Allens Cognitive Theories. It is an evaluation Occupational Therapist use to determine ones cognitive ability levels. Often O.T.’s will use cognitive task such as painting, ceramics, gardening, sports activities etc. as part of their therapy sessions not only to strengthen muscles, reduce stressors and depression but also to improve cognitive abilities.

  15. nelson kieff, student and parent says:

    The strategy that I enthusiastically recommend is play : play with other kids and without commercial anything, with the bare minimum to support whatever the play is, giving max allowance , liberty , and empty space for the kids deciding what and how, for making the rules of doing and managing it. Don’t use money to substitute for ingenuity, problem solving, hand on practical making it happen as an individual, member of team or group or ascribed role player. In fact the less there is to achieve the end , the more space there is to grow.

  16. gaynell Meij, RSMT, MS and ARTbundance Coach in CT says:

    Could you clarify for us the distinction the researchers have made between art and craft? As a contemporary quilt artist and previously a ceramic artist, I am discocerted that neurologists are now parsing the definition of what is art and what is craft. I find the full body somatic enagagement in tactile arts to be integrativley healthful!

  17. Anne, retired teacher, Venice FL says:

    Try quilting! Writing! Quilt projects keep me connected with wonderful friends each week . ..make great gifts, nourish my love of color and fabrics and design and sewing . ..gets me into classes. Writing addresses my need for solitude, interfaces with my love of reading, listening to and telling stories.

  18. Iiris Bjornberg, Coach, Helsinki, Finland says:

    Thank you, Ruth, once again, for good information! I would like to add something that Lucia Capacchione has used for 35 years to help people heal. It’s using our non-dominant hand which is a direct channel to the potential of the brain’s right hemisphere. This provides a fun and empowering approach to creativity . Also journal writing using both hands is a great way to engage both sides of the brain. Creativity is something that we all have. When you let it out, your health will improve, as the findings of this study show.

  19. Barbara says:

    I have looked for the article in Neurology, please give me more info, I cannot find this study.
    Thank yiu

    • Nancy, NICABM Staff says:

      Hi Barbara,

      This article was e-published on April 8th, but can be found in the May 5th print edition of Neurology.

  20. Dina, Executive Coach, Australia and Europe says:

    I find all the topics really interesting, both webinars and articles, and applicable to everyone. I was wondering if there could be an extended focus in the webinars on non-clinical population, which is basically clients I am working with in coaching.

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