Creativity Boosts Your Brain
Art helps the brain stay healthy, which leads to a thriving life.
Eighteen years ago, Jeanette Alexander ’79 almost died. She was under hospice care with lymphoma of her central nervous system. The diagnosis threatened to ravage her brain and spinal cord and cut her life short at 59.
“The doctor told my kids — he didn’t tell me,” she said. “He gave me just days to live.”
Before the diagnosis, Alexander had been reducing her workweek so she could focus on art — a lifelong passion that had proved persistent, circling in the back of her mind while she made a living as a financial planner and stockbroker.
She had already endured a divorce, two other types of cancer and the stress of being the sole provider for four children. Fulfilling her dreams of returning to art full time seemed implausible.
Proving her medical team wrong, Alexander survived. “Once I could get out of bed, I was back to my artwork,” she said. “I really think that at that point it helped me get well.”
Now 77, Alexander is a mixed-media artist who works with acrylic paint, pastels and collage. She still lives with an indolent blood cancer, but she is otherwise thriving in Austin, Texas.
Medical researchers have determined that creativity helps cancer patients focus on positive life experiences, enhance their self-worth, maintain social identity and express feelings. Ailing people who take part in artistic interventions are more likely to experience improved clinical outcomes: better vital signs, diminished cortisol related to stress and the ability to fall asleep without sedatives.
Creativity enhances the quality of a person’s life in numerous ways: It fosters connectivity, heightens self-understanding and counters a sedentary day job.
It also changes the brain.
Mauricio Papini, professor of psychology, said the human brain is constantly changing, and artistic activity can steer it in a positive direction by developing neurons and linking them in novel ways.
“Creativity has components,” Papini said. “You’re putting things together that were not together before. You’re seeing connections that you didn’t see before.”
Alexander believes art got her through rough times, including the death of her second husband. “What fills me up is the art,” she said. “It feeds my soul.”
Multisensory Benefits of Art
Alexandra George Hughes ’12, carving tool in hand, gouged a series of straight lines side by side into a flat piece of rubber. Hughes was turning a postcard-size surface — essentially a big pink eraser — into a stamp.
Her approach isn’t the easiest method to create a block print, Hughes said, but she likes the imperfections. “I purposely leave my carving lines because it’s my hand in the finished process. It gives it energy, and it feels human.”
She sells her prints depicting cityscapes, nature and interesting patterns under the name Wandering Paper Co.
Colors and the feelings they evoke are central to her artistry. Sunlight in Los Angeles emits warmer hues than it would in, say, Reykjavik, Iceland. Tones and hues are primary concerns when she mixes colors for her block prints.
Painter Silky Hart ’81 also focuses on capturing feelings.
During a recent trip to New Mexico, Hart gazed at the canyons, watercolor paper and palette in hand. Without looking at the paper, she made field sketches — quick watercolors of the landscape. Instead of cataloging where every tree stood, she asked herself, “How did the air feel on my face — the senses? If I’m so bogged down, I miss all of that.”
Back in her home studio in McKinney, Texas, Hart used the watercolors as guides for larger pieces. “When I look at them, it triggers that memory of being there,” she said. “It’s one thing to be technically superb, but you’ve got to bring your soul and your magic, your story, your expression.”
Hart, whose background is in dance, is relatively new to the visual artscape, having enrolled in her first fine arts workshop in 2011. For many years prior, she facilitated an expressive arts program that combined creative movement, written word and painting to tap into the emotions of people in health care facilities.
A.R.T.S. for People, an organization Hart contracted with, served people dealing with psychiatric conditions. Her intention was to help them explore feelings and find hope.
She also worked with physicians in rehab who were at risk of losing their medical licenses because of addiction issues. She said she saw their walls break down. “It was bittersweet for many of them because it had been since they were kids that they connected with that creative part of themselves.”
Amanda Allison, associate professor and art education coordinator, said art can be a springboard to self-discovery. “All art processes are multisensory. They involve all of our senses.”
During therapeutic art sessions for young people, Allison utilizes several methods to stimulate the amygdala, the brain’s center for processing emotions. She introduces music, aromatherapy and an ordered workspace. Sometimes she even distributes lemon drops or peppermints.
Activating the sensory parts of the brain strengthens recall, Allison said. When people can access more complete memories, they are better able to work through them with art.
“I believe every person can create, and I believe that it is a privilege to help someone see that they are creative,” she said. “You see them change. … You can see it in their body, in their face, the way they hold themselves. … Even the way they talk about themselves changes.”
To illustrate, she recalled a 16-year-old who was so angered by an art assignment that he broke his hand against a cinderblock wall. He did it to get out of class, Allison said, because he didn’t think he would be good at making art and feared shame.
Allison learned the student liked cars and built a connection with step-by-step books that showed how to draw vehicles. He got better and better. The teacher praised his efforts and added his drawing to her display of student work. By the end of the semester, the student had re-created Henri Matisse’s “Woman Sitting in a Chair.”
“Art is not this freewheeling, ‘Let’s all feel good,’ ” she said. “The visual arts are about equipping people with skill.”
While progressing as an artist, the student started sitting up straight and helping other students.
“He’s not an anomaly,” Allison said. “As you develop competency in art, that competency spills over to other areas. As you develop confidence through mastering an art process, that spills over.”
Pointing her right toe, lifelong dancer Hart twisted and turned her paintbrush each time she made a stroke of an emerging cottonwood tree. When she got frustrated with that wood panel painting, Hart turned her attention to a less-developed creation, adding cold wax along the way.
“I’m very kinesthetic, so I have to stand and move. I do a lot of dancing in here,” she said. “I do think that sensibility of my dance background somehow is part of who I am as an artist. I can’t separate the two.”
Continuity theory, Alicia Smith-Tran said, is a thread of consistency that is stitched throughout a person’s life. As people age and their brains change, they will maintain involvement in or return to activities they enjoyed at various points in time. This helps people adapt to shifting life circumstances.
“That continuity is important for feeling normalcy,” said Smith-Tran, assistant professor of sociology. “Part of wanting that continuity, too, I think, is out of wanting to fulfill what we see as our future selves, our possible selves — or avoiding our feared selves and what we don’t want to be.”
The block prints Hughes carves are an expression of her life — her travels and upbringing. With an architect father and Italian National Geographic photographer for a grandfather, she grew up in an art-minded environment. In making art, she merges her past with the present, building continuity.
As Hughes sharpened her block-carving and printing skills over time, she added challenges. One print involved three layers, each carved on its own block.
Handcrafts are an intellectual activity as well as a manual one, Papini said. They require creativity, coordination and problem-solving. Qualities like spatial dimensions, perspective, proportion all present challenges.
“You’re not necessarily going to be completely aware of these problems,” he said. “If you’re able to plan or to think spatially and so forth, this is because there are parts of the brain that are doing that for you. But you’re doing those things with your brain.”
As a person repeats an activity, synaptic connections between neurons become stronger. With well-established pathways in the brain, transmission can happen in a snap. Third-grade teachers give so many multiplication math drills for this reason. The more people do an activity, the faster they find a solution.
Papini, who studies motivation and how behavioral changes alter the brain, pointed to a small cow made of miniature Legos. The gift from a former student lives on the corner of his desk.
Papini said he once accidentally caused it to fall apart. But the student reassembled it in less time than it had taken to create in the first place.
“If you don’t have a model to follow, you have to really exert a lot of creativity and coordination and solve all kinds of little problems,” Papini said. “She had to engage some of the same neural processes when she did it the second time, but also she had the experience of having done it before. Parts of that experience were memorized.”
Creativity and the complex decision-making it involves can lead to an enlarged hippocampus, a part of the brain that helps turn short-term memory into long-term memory, Papini said, which makes the creative process part of a person’s being.
“The brain is a never-ending story,” Papini said. “Until the very moment in which you die, it can still change because it responds to experience.”
Creativity and Complex Decision-Making
Mary McCleary ’72 is a mixed-media Norman Rockwell. The Nacogdoches, Texas, artist depicts everyday scenes, from birthday parties to rain droplets on a car window. But she does it all with an elaborate assortment of cords, sticks, beads, toys and other found objects.
In her collage “Fiat Lux,” a woman wearing a party hat brings a birthday cake to someone out of the frame. The cake’s candles are lit, and an actual matchbox sits on a side table. McCleary said she found the matchbox on eBay and named the completed work after the match’s brand, Fiat Lux, a Latin phrase that means “let there be light.”
“My work is very detailed and very much handcrafted with a whole lot of time-consuming, fine, detailed labor,” she said. “And there is, I think, probably a therapeutic aspect of that.”
Her works are exhibited across the nation and are often purchased before they’re complete.
“I was really drawn to that sort of obsessive nature of it — the material quality, the density of it,” said Sara-Jayne Parsons, director of The Art Galleries at TCU. “For me that was so seductive — the creativity of reusing materials, really paying attention to composition and thinking about color.”
McCleary fills notebooks with ideas inspired by history, literature and interactions with people.
“I want my work to function at multiple levels, like a great novel that you can pick apart and find all sorts of meanings in,” she said. “It’s not something that you perceive and can pick up in 30 seconds.”
Parsons, a contemporary art historian, studied minimalism — the opposite of McCleary’s work. “Mary’s work was like a bomb going off,” she said. “There’s a great vibrancy to it.”
McCleary also has a knack for bringing history to the present. In one 1989 work, she depicts the scriptural moment an angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Abraham and the man representing the angel wear collared shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Isaac, hands bound behind his back, wears oxford dress shoes.
“In reading the stories, they became very real to me and not just a fable of long ago,” she said. “When I put them in contemporary costumes in a contemporary setting, then they become real.”
Ornate layers of collage, beads and assorted objects take the form of whatever McCleary imagines.
“I like complexity of ideas as well as visual complexity,” she said. “It’s sort of like a little puzzle to try to put it all together and to come up with some variety of ways to combine ideas and images.”
Art is a reflection of both subject and the artist herself, McCleary said. “How well we craft things really is a reflection of a whole worldview.”
She used quilt-making as an example of reclamation and giving new life to discarded materials.
“I like that it’s harder,” McCleary said of her tedious work. “I like that it’s pushing me to use every part of my mind, every part of my spirit. I’m using every part of me, and that’s the challenge.”
Allison described the internal process of creating art as flow, a psychological state where a person experiences extreme pleasure in doing something and loses track of time. One requirement of reaching this state is an appropriate level of challenge.
Step Away from the Desk
Hughes’ block-printing is an off-the-clock endeavor. Her day job as a graphic designer for St. Mark’s School of Texas is also creative, but in a much different capacity.
“I really like the yin and yang of doing that during the day and then getting to come home and work with my hands and doing something physical,” Hughes said. “I feel like they both feed each other.”
At work, Hughes is confined to brand standards that include a color palette and font families.
In her home studio, “it’s exciting because I can do anything I want,” she said. “I feel more free to be more experimental and more playful.”
With at least a third of a professional’s day devoted to work and another third to sleep, activities in the leftover time are important for stimulating the brain. With creative hobbies, humans are simply doing what all societies have done: make art.
Allison pointed to research by Ellen Dissanayake, who theorizes that all people have a desire to “take and make special.” Art is a basic biological need, she said, meaning it is as natural and essential to life as eating, sleeping and sex.
In his Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009), Matthew B. Crawford writes that skilled manual labor requires a systematic encounter with the material world. Through working with the hands, Crawford said, a person enters a world full of its own principles and a structure.
Gary Satz ’84 wandered into the realm of fused glass several decades ago. Since then he has learned to abide by the mechanical and chemical realities of his craft.
In his position at Lockheed Martin, where Satz has worked for 35 years, he doesn’t have much leeway for creativity. The senior program manager ensures that company projects stay on schedule and on budget, in accordance with government contracts.
Satz, who majored in creative writing, got into glass-crafting by building mobiles as a hobby. With his wife, Kim, as encourager, Satz enrolled in a fused-glass workshop. He now has his own kiln and workshop behind the house. His work evolved from photo frames to larger items such as platters and bowls.
Cutting the glass and waiting for the kiln to do its magic is tedious and time-consuming, but the manual action is as important as the creativity. Satz said he is most excited the moment he opens his kiln after experimenting with new techniques and colors.
“It’s all about that, really,” he said. “Did it work? What does it look like?”
For someone who concentrates on control in his day job, cutting and stacking glass just to set it in a kiln and walk away can be jarring. But Satz has learned to fuse his creativity with the principles of the craft.
“That’s the part that appeals to me,” he said. “Instead of being strictly in control of exactly executing the sharp edges of the piece I cut by hand, I’m cutting these shapes because I think when the glass melts it’s going to render something of a more organic design, or it’s going to create a geometric design unlike anything I could cut.”
A Thriving Community
In Hart’s home studio, a banner with the words cherish, wonder, gratitude and harmony hangs above a window looking out onto the historic district of McKinney, an area lined with pastel houses, white picket fences and mature trees. She said her studio time can be isolating because it requires uninterrupted introspection. “I really think that sense of community is just important to your well-being.”
A decade ago, Hart and her husband, Tom, founded the McKinney Creative Community, which organizes a monthly speaker series and presents an annual Holiday Art Bazaar.
Hart and five other artists formed an art book club. The group has evolved into what Hart calls an art posse that visits art museums and builds technical art skills. They also text each other just to check in.
“There’s research that supports that people who have strong social networks and strong ties are more likely to have better health outcomes and potentially live longer,” Smith-Tran said. Affinity groups also can help people avoid social isolation, which can wear away at health.
Strong social relationships are linked to a longer life, reports the National Institutes of Health. The larger and more diverse those social ties are, the better.
Art galleries and museums also help fortify relationships in a community.
“I have a role to support the artists, to show their work in the best possible way that we can and to have conversations,” said Parsons, TCU’s art curator. “My aim in doing that is to help them maybe see their work in a different way … and then putting it into a space where people could engage with it.”
Names of the masters — Michelangelo, da Vinci, Donatello or Raphael — conjure ideas of artists as semi-deified prodigies who were superlative at re-creating nature, but Parsons said artists are people too, no matter their skill level.
“When I stopped thinking about the artist that I was going to go to the library and research and I began meeting living artists, I thought, ‘They put their pants on one leg at a time like me!’ ” she said. “I think there are so many stereotypes of artists in culture, and if you’re not used to being around art and artists, it’s easy to think that they’re special, untouchable and not everyday people.”
Parsons does not take any opportunity to work with an artist for granted. In her Moudy Hall office, she slipped on pink and yellow glasses to thumb through small black notebooks filled with details from her conversations with artists.
“For me it’s about being human — connecting with another human being and being interested enough to learn why they do what they do. I’m curious. I want to understand that,” she said. “I love to hear their stories.”
Sociologist Smith-Tran also explores the school of thought called activity theory: The busier or more engaged people are in life, the better their quality of life will be. She specifically studies the aging adult and the framing of retirement, which can be an opportunity to return to creative hobbies.
McCleary, the multilayer 3D artist, taught at Stephen F. Austin State University for 30 years. She is now the university’s regents professor emeritus of art. Through the demands of teaching, she never stopped creating.
“I was always focused on the students and what their needs were, not what I was trying to do,” she said. “It’s about learning who they are and helping them become better.”
Art, after all, has always been an ongoing dialogue, McCleary said. “The thing that is the most fulfilling is that it’s a bridge to other people — it’s a communication bridge. … It’s not that different than when you have a heart-to-heart with your best friend: You’re connecting on a deep, deep, deep level.”