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The Doodler Abides

New research finds mindless drawing produces psychological benefits.

The effect has been found in both jazz pianists and freestyle rappers: Musical improvisation triggers the brain's reward system, releasing a variety of powerful, positive feelings.

But the rest of us needn't feel left out. A newly published study finds the same pattern of brain activity is triggered by one of the most common and universal of all artistic endeavors: doodling.

A research team led by Girija Kaimal of Drexel University found just a few minutes of doodling or freestyle drawing activates the brain's reward system, leaving people feeling more creative and confident in their problem-solving abilities.

When we ignore or resist the impulse to draw, "We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain," Kaimal said in announcing the results. "This shows that there might be inherent pleasure in doing art activities, independent of the end results."

The small-scale study featured 26 adult participants: 11 artists and 15 non-artists. As their brains were scanned using functional infrared spectroscopy, each spent three minutes drawing whatever they wished; another three minutes doodling (using a series of circles as a starting point); and a final three minutes coloring in shapes on a pre-drawn mandala.

Between projects, they spent two minutes resting with their eyes closed. Immediately before and after the experiment, they filled out a questionnaire in which they rated their level of imagination, ability to come up with new ideas, and ability to solve problems.

The researchers report that, compared to the resting state, "the three visual-arts tasks resulted in significant activation of the medial prefrontal cortex," which has been identified as a key component of the brain's reward system.

"For all participants, regardless of skill level, doodling and free drawing resulted in increased brain activation compared with the coloring condition," they write. So much for all that money you spent on those trendy coloring books for adults: A blank piece of paper produced better results.

Why not pick up your pencil and let your imagination go? The Dude would approve.

While "the sample size was too small to draw any definitive conclusions," Kaimal and her colleagues found some evidence of differences between artists and non-artists. The coloring activity actually decreased brain activity in the artists, suggesting its inherent restrictions made the task less than pleasurable. Doodling on the circles (compared to free drawing) created the most activity for them, suggesting they enjoy a bit of structure.

For artists and non-artists alike, these measures of brain activity were reflected in participants' responses to the experiment. They rated themselves higher on two key assertions—"I have good ideas" and "I can solve problems"—after performing the three activities.

"These findings have useful implications in empowering individuals to shift self-perceptions of creative abilities and creative problem-solving," the researchers write. "Their differences were not seen to be related to artistic skills, age, or gender, indicating that all participants, regardless of demographic background, could potentially see such changes."

So there is now scientific confirmation of the insights of jazz giants Horace Silver and Jon Hendricks. "I'd be so lost without my doodlin'," Lambert, Hendricks and Ross sang to Silver's melody. "It really helps to ease my mind."

Obviously, a larger study will be needed to confirm these results. But given that there’s no real down side, why not pick up your pencil and let your imagination go? The Dude would approve.