Our phones have all but extinguished freehand scribbling for most of us. New research from Drexel University, however, suggests you may want to raid the office closet for a real life pen, crayon, or colored pencil, because drawing—inside the lines or out—can help lift your mood.
For the study, 50 volunteers were asked to work on three different art activities: coloring inside a mandala (one of those black and white concentric patterns), doodling, or free-hand drawing. The researchers found that the art activities (done for three minutes each) improved blood flow to the brain's prefrontal cortex—your brain's pleasure center. During rest periods, the blood flow went back to normal.
"We tend to equate doodling with wasting time or being distracted, but that might not be how it actually works inside our brains," says study author Girija Kaimal, an assistant professor in creative art therapies at Drexel University. Some scribbles, however, were more rewarding than others: Doodling sent the greatest amount of blood flow to the brain, followed by free-hand drawing, and coloring the mandala. (The differences were small, so the researchers recommend going with whatever feels the most satisfying to you.)
The buzz behind art as an antidote to our anxiety-ridden, overscheduled lives has picked up in recent years, which we imagine is just one reason why people can't seem to shut up about those adult coloring books. It's also another reason why the trend of art as therapy isn't going away: Studies have previously shown that sketching can improve focus and creativity while reducing stress.
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The connection between art and that surge of pleasure, meanwhile, may have more to do with your hands than the quality of your artistry: "It might be that 'making' things with your hands are rewarding activities and give us a sense of power, creativity, and agency," Kaimal hypothesizes. While more research is needed, she says it's also possible that activities like gardening, cooking, or building things like Lego structures, for instance, could have a similar effect on the brain.
"I tell people to check out the coloring books, but better yet, get yourself a blank notebook and let your hand and brain play with lines and shapes," she adds. Old habits die hard—but we bet you can't still scribble that weird "s" thing like it's 1996.
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