Researchers say that art-making, and especially doodling, boosts activity in the brain's reward pathway.
Study leader Girija Kaimal, of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, and colleagues recently published their findings in The Arts in Psychotherapy.
Previous studies have shown that producing art may have significant benefits for psychological well-being.
Such findings have helped fuel an increase in art creation among adults; who could forget the adult coloring book trend that took hold in 2015?
But what other factors make art creation so appealing? The new study from Kaimal and team suggests that it may be down to how it affects brain activity.
Art-making boosts blood flow in the prefrontal cortex
The research involved 26 healthy adults aged between 18 and 70 years, eight of whom were artists.
For the study, all subjects were required to engage in three different art-making tasks - coloring, doodling, or free drawing - lasting 3 minutes each, with a rest period in between.
During each task, participants had their brain activity monitored using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which is an imaging technique that measures the blood flow in certain brain regions.
The researchers found that all three art-making tasks led to an increase in blood flow in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, but during rest periods, blood flow in this brain region returned to normal.
The prefrontal cortex forms a part of the brain's reward pathway, and it also plays a role in the regulation of emotions.
According to the researchers, increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex during art-making indicates that the activity likely triggers feelings of pleasure and reward.
The researchers found that doodling led to the greatest blood flow increase in the prefrontal cortex, followed by free-drawing, then coloring. However, the team says that the differing effects of each activity were not statistically significant.
"There were some emergent differences but we did not have a large enough sample in this initial study to draw any definitive conclusions," says Kaimal.
Benefits of art-making independent of artistic skill
On analyzing the results by subgroups, the researchers found that artists showed no greater increase in prefrontal cortex blood flow during art-making than non-artists, suggesting that one does not need to have artistic talent in order to find art creation rewarding.
Among artists, doodling led to the largest blood flow increase in the prefrontal cortex, while free-drawing led to similar brain activity in both artists and non-artists.
The researchers were interested to find, however, that coloring appeared to reduce blood flow in the prefrontal cortex of artists. The team speculates that this is because there was no free rein with the coloring activity.
"I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media," says Kaimal. "They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time."
The team cautions that further research is required before any conclusions can be made about the effects of art-making on psychological health.
However, Kaimal believes that their findings suggest that if you're looking to boost your mood, a quick doodle could do wonders.
"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."