Creativity and the Brain

Art can be an extremely powerful tool for communication. Up until the age of around three, we experience the world largely without language. During this time, we experience the world mainly “through our visual and other somatic senses” – we make sense of our emotional life through image-making and image-recalling (Riley, 2004). For children, art is a language of thought – a means of expression as the child grows, perceives, understands and interprets her environment (Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1975). This is one reason that art can help facilitate the therapeutic process – creating images is a natural state for our minds, and a natural way of communicating.

Another benefit of using art in therapy is that “the use of motor and sensory functions in a therapeutic process can actually help to stimulate important parts of the brain, and, thereby, facilitate involvement in the therapeutic process more easily” (Del Giacco, 2010). In order to engage in the therapeutic process, it is helpful to shut down our “inner critic” as much as possible. To do this, we need to deactivate the parts of our brain that control our inhibitions, and activate the parts that control our imagination. Recent research on jazz musicians and rappers participating in spontaneous musical improvisation indicates that when we are in a state of “creative flow,” our brains do exactly that (Kaufman, 2013).

Many people think that the left side of the brain is logical, analytical and practical, while the right side of the brain is responsible for passion, creativity and excitement. As it turns out, the creative process actually involves many different regions of the brain, not just one particular side (Kaufman, 2013). Some regions of the brain are responsible for providing a cognitive framework within which behaviour is consciously monitored (Limb & Braun, 2008). Deactivation of these regions can result in “defocused, free-floating attention that permits spontaneous unplanned associations, and sudden insights or realizations” (Limb & Braun, 2008).  This provides an opportunity for “unfiltered, unconscious, or random thoughts and sensations to emerge” (Limb & Braun, 2008). The deactivation of this brain region is associated with other altered states of consciousness that are similar to being in a state of “creative flow,” such as meditation or daydreaming (Limb & Braun, 2008). The deactivation of the self-monitoring region of the brain is combined with activation of another region responsible for “intentional, internally generated self-expression” (Limb & Braun, 2008). All of this brain activity occurs during flow – when you are present and fully immersed in creative task, such as art-making (Kaufman, 2012).

This is exactly why engaging in the creative process can facilitate an easier immersion in the therapeutic process. When we engage in creative flow, our brain activity supports our full engagement in the therapeutic process; our self-monitoring goes down, and we have more room for insight, intuition, and spontaneous free thought – all integral components of the process of psychotherapy.

Sources for this post:

Del Giacco, M. (2010). Art Therapy: The Visual Spatial Factor and the Hippocampus. 2nd Revision.

Kaufman, S. 2012. “The creative ‘flow’: how to enter that mysterious state of oneness.”

Kaufman, S. 2013. “The real neuroscience of creativity.”

Lowenfeld, V. and Brittain, W.L. 1975. Creative and Mental Growth. Macmillan Publishing Co,: New York.

Riley, S. (2004). The Creative Mind. Art Therapy Journal Of The American Art Therapy Assoc21(4), 184-190.


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