The Artist’s Brain

More Gray Matter!

A study by Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven, Belgium has found that artists have structurally different brains, compared with non-artists. Well, that explains a lot! I’m sure many of us have suspected as much, but now science is beginning to look into the matter and this small study has revealed some surprising details that distinguish the creative brain. Using a brain scanning method called voxel-based morphometry, researchers peered into the brains of 21 art students and 23 non-artists. What they found was that the artist group had significantly more gray matter in a region of the brain involved in visual imagery.

The Inner Studio, Tenth Street by William Merritt Chase, 1882.
The Inner Studio, Tenth Street by William Merritt Chase, 1882.

Dr. Chamberlain also asked the participants to complete drawing tasks. Those better at drawing had increased gray and white matter in the cerebellum and in the supplementary motor area, involved in fine motor control. Related studies performed with creative persons in other fields (such as music) also suggests enhanced processing in these areas.

“It falls into line with evidence that focus of expertise really does change the brain. The brain is incredibly flexible in response to training and there are huge individual differences that we are only beginning to tap into,” reports Dr. Chamberlain. This sounds to us like reinforcement of the 10,000 hour rule. Practice makes perfect perhaps because the brain is rewired to constantly get better at it while we work. Talent in art is useful, but persistence, especially in developing a skill, counts for more. Combine the two and eventually a great artist emerges from the years of hard brain-training effort.

Ellen Winner of Boston College, who was not involved in the study, said that this study should help “to put to rest the facile claims that artists use ‘the right side of their brain’ given that increased gray and white matter were found in the art group in both left and right structures of the brain.” What would really nail all the data down would be a large-scale prospective study of the creative vs. non-creative brain. In the meantime, it is interesting to remember all the hours we spent with a pencil in our hands as we were growing up. Who knew then that we were not just having fun, but shaping our very future abilities in the process?

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–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

5 thoughts on “The Artist’s Brain

  1. I was with you up to the part about a ” large-scale prospective study of the creative vs. non-creative brain.” What is a non-creative brain? Those who are in the arts have a visual creativity but others are also creative — the school teacher who finds a creative new way to teach a concept, the engineer who thinks up a new gizmo, the guy who fixes or improves your air conditioner, etc. Some are visually creative, some are intellectually creative, etc.

  2. I was with you up to the part about a ” large-scale prospective study of the creative vs. non-creative brain.” What is a non-creative brain? Those who are in the arts have a visual creativity but others are also creative — the school teacher who finds a creative new way to teach a concept, the engineer who thinks up a new gizmo, the guy who fixes or improves your air conditioner, etc. Some are visually creative, some are intellectually creative, etc.

  3. I was with you up to the part about a ” large-scale prospective study of the creative vs. non-creative brain.” What is a non-creative brain? Those who are in the arts have a visual creativity but others are also creative — the school teacher who finds a creative new way to teach a concept, the engineer who thinks up a new gizmo, the guy who fixes or improves your air conditioner, etc. Some are visually creative, some are intellectually creative, etc.

  4. Have to agree about the definition of creative: many artists I know happen to be good accountants, while lousy at maths and chess. Accounting is definitely right-brained, as are engineering, architecture, and many other disciplines that would be considered left-brained or non-creative. I suspect its not so much whether the knowledge or subject matter is creative or not, but how the person with that knowledge uses it. Does the person have imagination?
    Its a fascinating subject, but it needs a lot more research done before anything can be stated with any certainty. As we all know, art is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, so its likely an “artists brain” has to be something anyone can develop and not simply confined to visual artists.

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