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Colouring, doodling and drawing have been found to increase activity in a part of the brain responsible for emotional reward, according to a new study put together by a small team at Drexel University.

Hmmm, that art therapy might be onto something.

Led by Girgija Kaimal, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, the group used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) to monitor blood flow in the brain while participants got creative, free-drawing, doodling around a circle and colouring a mandala for a few minutes at a time with a short break in between each.

Sure enough, while performing the three activities, the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain associated with motivation and emotional reward) of the participants was observed to have more blood flow than during the periods of rest.

“This shows that there might be inherent pleasure in doing art activities independent of the end results. Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgements of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not,” Kaimal told the Drexel University blog. “We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biological proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves.”

So, the takeaway is that while subjects were creating, their brains looked happy, even if their hands weren’t particularly good at colouring between the lines. What’s more, participants indicated that the creative sessions left them with “good ideas” and an enhanced ability to “solve problems.”

There was a very slight difference in the brain’s activity for each of the tasks, with doodling leading to the highest average blood flow increase, followed by free-drawing and then colouring.

“There are several implications of this study’s findings,” Kaimal said. “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.”