Art can change our brain and drive innovation and creativity in science, say experts

Producing, creating or being engaged in art has “great capacity to change our brain” and help “drive creativity and innovation” in art and science, according to Associate Professor Liz Scott.

Associate Professor Scott was speaking at a University of Sydney event, ‘Art and Neuroplasticity: are they linked?’, which looked at whether neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury, can be influenced by art.

Associate Professor Scott, who is experienced in neuropsychiatry, mood disorders and mental health, explained that engagement in art is not only linked to brain plasticity and neural networks, but that it also releases beneficial chemicals and emotional responses.

“It also can drive the release of dopamine in the reward and pleasure centres in our brain,” said Associate Professor Scott. “It can help with stress reduction, it can help with improving self-esteem and social skills. It can help with the development of empathy. And really importantly, it can increase our sense of connectedness.”

Assoc. Prof. Scott was joined by a panel of art and brain experts, including Gill Nicol, the director of audience engagement at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Samantha Meers, the co-founder of the Nelson Meers Foundation, Professor Sharon Naismith, a Neuropsychologist and Dr Bernadette Harvey, a Senior Lecturer of piano at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music.

According to Professor Naismith, different parts of the brain are “highly specialised” and can be stimulated by different types of art. For example, said Naismith, abstract art stimulates a back section of the brain.

But, asked Professor Naismith, “is engagement in art the key to neuroplasticity? Is it simply enough just to go along and view art, look at art, appreciate art in that way? Or do you really need to be making art?”

One study looked at retired older adults and it showed that engaging in art was critical for brain plasticity. Adults who viewed art or evaluated art were compared with adults who were involved in the creation of art with an artist educator.

“Brain scans showed changes in the brains of those who were creating art, but not in those who were simply viewing art,” said Professor Naismith. “Small studies with dementia patients have shown that they are more socially connected, more socially included. People felt better, they had improved quality of life.”

“However,” added Professor Naismith, “in general the research has been plagued by very poor study design.”

So what are simple ways to encourage neuroplasticity?

According to the speakers, staying engaged, learning a new language, taking an art class, exercising, meditation, brain training and sleep are great. However, depression, social isolation, and retirement are not so great.

Anatomical drawing of the brain by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.

“It’s in our power as individuals to change our own brain,,” concluded Ms Nicol.

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