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Friday, February 13, 2015

How learning artistic skills alters the brain

SOTT | Feb 12, 2015 | Tom Jacobs

New research finds neural changes not only reflecting increased technical capacities, but also enhanced creativity.

© Miramax Films
John Cusack (left) in Bullets Over Broadway.
Are artists born, or made? At the end of Woody Allen's great comedy Bullets Over Broadway, the John Cusack character concludes that, in spite of his desire and effort, he will never be a creative genius. He simply does not have the gift.

But is his reluctant assumption that artistry is encoded in one's genes, or perhaps one's soul, really true? A recently published paper suggests otherwise.

"Creativity is another concept that is often thought of as something we are either born with or will never have," says Dartmouth College psychologist Alexander Schlegel, lead author of a paper published in the journal NeuroImage. "Our data clearly refute this notion."

Schlegel and his colleagues report that taking an introductory class in painting or drawing literally alters students' brains. What's more, these training-induced changes didn't only improve the fine motor control needed for sophisticated sketching; they also boosted the students' creative thinking.

Start doing the work, and the brain responds, allowing one to build and retain not just technical knowledge, but also the imaginative capacity needed to utilize it fully.

Their study featured 35 college undergraduates, 17 of whom took a three-month introductory course in observational drawing or painting. All underwent monthly brain scans using fMRI technology.

At the beginning and end of the study, all participants completed a standard test of creative thinking, which measures such factors as fluency, originality, and the creative use of imagery and language.

During each of the monthly sessions, their brains were scanned under two conditions: as they "judged properties of illusory visual stimuli," a test designed to track the development of their perceptual abilities; and as they made "quick, 30-second gesture drawings based on observations of human figures."

"We did not find any improvements in the art students' purely perceptual skills or related brain activity relative to a control group of students who did not study art," the researchers write. "We did, however, find that the art students improved in the ability to quickly translate observations of human figures into gesture drawings, and that fine-grained patterns of drawing-related neural activity in the cerebellum and cerebral cortex increasingly differentiated the art students from the control group over the course of the study."

In other words, the researchers were able to watch as the brain adapted to learning new skills. But more importantly, they also observed changes in their prefrontal white matter that corresponded to an increase in their ability to think creatively.

The art students specifically increased "their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery," the researchers write. The results suggests that, in a matter of a few months, "prefrontal white matter reorganizes as (art students) become more able to think creatively."

So here is still more evidence of the plasticity of the brain, and its ability to adapt to new habits, new skills, and new information. Start doing the work, and the brain responds, allowing one to build and retain not just technical knowledge, but also the imaginative capacity needed to utilize it fully.

"Maybe there are gene variants that give individuals a proclivity toward art (e.g. make them more open to new ideas or more prone to make connections or see patterns), but that is a long way from saying they were born an artist and that those without such gene variants are doomed to being uncreative," Schlegel concludes. "It also propagates the strange myth of the artist as a special class of human. I hope our study will help to debunk the notion that there are "artists" and "the rest of us."

Source: Pacific Standard

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