Friday, December 8, 2023

Your Brain on Art

Artists’ brains are different. As an artist, it is very likely you experience the reality of this every day. There are ways in which this is a benefit, allowing you to see the world in a unique way and represent it as others never could. But for many, there are frustrations that come with having an artist’s brain. Artists sometimes struggle to keep up with the business realities of their careers and describing their art in words can prove all but impossible.

Contrary to wide held belief, artists are probably not more likely to use their right brains over their left. More recent research points rather to overall structural differences between artistic and non-artistic brains.

In order to study these artistic brains, researchers invited a group of graduate and post-graduate artists to complete drawing tasks while their brain activity was measured. This group was compared with non-artists. What the researchers discovered was that, rather than an increase in activity on one particular side of the brain, the scans revealed increased activity in those areas responsible for fine motor control and procedural memory. These abilities are housed on both sides of the brain and controlled largely by grey matter density, which was shown to be increased in artists’ brains.

Procedural memory is really what it sounds like. It is the kind of memory responsible for knowing how to complete tasks. Things, like riding a bike, walking, and talking, are controlled in part by procedural memory. In the case of artists, the ability to render visual images relies heavily on procedural memory.

Another study compared the brains of artists to those of scientists. In a series of tests, things like social conformity, agreeableness, and randomness of connectivity were measured. Researchers found that the brains of scientists tested for more randomness than those of artists who, in word association tasks, demonstrated more organized thinking. Socially speaking, most of the scientists involved in the study demonstrated slightly more developed social tendencies and what may be considered conformist thinking. Artists, on the other hand, demonstrated unusual thinking patterns. Those with less agreeable personalities–albeit a subjective measurement–tended to test higher for creative abilities.

The brain remains a mystery in large part. We still do not know a great many things about how it works or why. The studies into the structure of creativity have only just begun and little is known about the reasons for particular traits seeming to align with artistic ability. While there is no definitive conclusion just yet, studies seem to indicate that artistic brains are innate rather than learned. That is, those who become artists are typically born artists.

This certainly seems to be the case in quite a lot of anecdotal evidence. Time and time again, artists tell stories of knowing from an early age that their future was seemingly pre-destined. Art is an all-consuming pursuit, a singular obsession for many. Basic structural differences in the brains of artists could go a long way toward explaining why many artists are so intently focused on their craft.

Interestingly, these studies also point to another possibility. That is, the more an individual pursues a focused endeavor, the more likely it is that brain structure might develop to support these tasks. In the study of artist vs non-artist brains, those involved were either art students or post-graduates or students studying areas other than art. Because of this, the artist cohort would have devoted many years leading up to the study to the intense pursuit of a highly focused ability. It is highly likely that this focused practice strengthens the already existing structures in the brain that support artistic ability. Much in the same way that continued practice walking or talking or riding a bike as a child supports the development of the procedural memory necessary for these tasks.

Much of this neuroscience will come as no surprise to artists themselves. There is absolutely no question that artists stand in a sphere of their own. There is a reason we refer to art as a world in itself. It is a world populated with like-minded thinkers, those for whom creativity is king. While some artists are able to cross over into other areas such as business management or marketing with some measure of success, it is not at all uncommon for artists to feel easily overwhelmed when faced with the day to day tasks of turning their abilities into a career.

We are who we are. Studies like these are useful in that they demonstrate a basic, organic foundation to artistic thinking. This sort of research helps dispel the notion of the difficult artist misbehaving just for the sake of it. By laying down evidence suggesting that the brains of artists are in fact different than those of non-artists, we can begin to understand and more fully accept the artistic personality as just one in a myriad of others that make up the fabric of humankind.


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  1. Great article, Brinard. In my journey in finding myself as aneeded artist. In 2010, I discovered that I have what is called a “Hyper Creative Mind” which means I was constantly being bombarded with new ideas as a result I could never take an idea to the finish line. Since the new ideas are always more exciting then the last. Since then I been doing things a bit differently. I still have lots of ideas, but now I force myself to commit to finish everything that I started. Boy oh boy is that hard. However, so far things are working out, I get to finish more paintings in series, mind you without loosing interest, more projects and accomplish more sales.


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