Dartmouth Study Shows Taking an Art Course Rewires Your Brain


July 30, 2015

A Dartmouth-led study shows that the brains of young adults reorganize as they learn to create visual art. In other words, taking an art course rewires your brain.

The findings appear in the journal NeuroImage. A PDF is available on request.

Artists are distinguished by the ability to think in new ways, but many questions about what makes artists creative remain open, especially regarding the brain’s role. Previous neuroscientific studies have used a range of approaches to explore the neural basis of artistic creativity, but little consensus has emerged. In the new study, researchers studied behavioral and neural changes in art students compared to students who did not study art. Specifically, they investigated how artistic behaviors are learned, focusing on representational visual art and on three areas of cognition that are relevant to many visual artists: creative cognition, visual perception and perception-to-action. They asked how skills associated with each of these three cognitive domains change and how the brain reorganizes as students learn to create visual art.

The study included 35 college students; 17 took a three-month-long introductory drawing or painting course, while 18 did not study art. All participants attended monthly MRI scanning sessions. The findings show that the art students became more creative via the reorganization of their brain’s prefrontal white matter, but there were no significant changes in their perceptual ability or related neural activity compared to the non-art students. Moreover, the art students improved in their ability to sketch human figures from observation, and patterns of cortical and cerebellar activity evoked by this drawing task became increasingly distinct between art and non-art students.

“Our findings suggest that the emergence of visual artistic skills is supported by plasticity in neural pathways that enable creative cognition and mediate perceptuomotor integration,” says co-author Peter Tse, a professor in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “An artist’s work is not an innate skill and so must be developed through study and practice. Our study reveals that artistic development is a complex process involving changes in behavior along with the reorganization of both the structure and function of the brain. While we documented changes in specific aspects of creative cognition and in the integration of perception and action, future research in different artistic disciplines and among different populations will undoubtedly reveal further complexity in the creative learning process.”

Professor Peter Tse is available to comment at Peter.U.Tse@dartmouth.edu.