The next time you’re feeling down or need to solve a problem, you might want to consider picking up a pen or pencil and start doodling. A recent study from Drexel University suggests that coloring, doodling, and drawing activates the brain’s reward pathways.
The study, which consisted of 26 participants, was conducted with each participant wearing an fNIRS headband, a brain-imaging device worn on the head that measures neural activity during everyday tasks. Each participant, categorized as an artist or a non-artist, completed three activities, coloring in a mandala, doodling within or around a circle, and drawing without any constraints. Each session lasted three minutes. In between each drawing sessions, participants took a break.
According to the study, each activity produced an increase in blood flow to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which regulates thoughts, feelings, and actions. The prefrontal cortex is also related to emotional and motivational systems, and it can result in feelings of pleasure and feeling rewarded.
Regardless of whether or not a participant considered themselves an artist, doodling produced the most blood flow to the prefrontal cortex.
An interesting find to note was that coloring the mandala actually resulted in negative brain activity for artists. “I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media,” Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions and leader of the study, said.
Although the results were intriguing, Kaimal notes that the small sample size necessitated further study to confirm their findings. At the conclusion of the study, participants were issued a survey. Many of the participants felt they could “solve problems” better and were more easily able to come up with “good ideas” after the artistic activities.
“They indicate an inherent potential for evoking positive emotions through art-making — and doodling especially. Doodling is something we all have experience with and might re-imagine as a democratizing, skill independent, judgment-free pleasurable activity,” Kaimal said.