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Art Therapy and Neuroscience

Renée Spencer, 2018, Tree of Hearts, pencil on paper – digitally enhanced

Art therapy and neuroscience have an intimate connection. There are many facets to this which can be explored, however, as an introduction to the topic this article will be focusing on the creative process. Other connections between art, therapy, the brain, and mental health will be explored in future articles.


At its simplest, creativity is the process of ‘creating’ – be that a meal, a science experiment, or an artwork. While precise definitions can vary, most reflect the notion that creativity is a process, not a singular event. Components of this process can be broken down to (1) considering a task or problem; (2) mentally planning and perceiving possibilities; (3) executing this plan using conscious control over the materials, media, techniques, and skills at one’s disposal. The end goal of creativity is that something new is made.


Neurologically, creativity has been identified as a whole brain activity, regardless of how it is expressed. Research from functional magnetic resonance imaging scans indicates that when a person is thinking creatively, networks within the brain that do not usually work together start to do so. Most significantly, these are the default mode and the executive control network. The default mode’s primary function is episodic memory retrieval, while the executive control network helps to direct attention and focus. When faced with a goal or a problem, these parts of the brain are forced to co-operate to come up with a solution, while ordinarily, they function singularly; creative thinking is one of the only currently known ways in which these parts are activated and work together (Beaty, Benedek, Silvia, & Schacter, 2016).


The importance of creativity in art therapy is expressed by many practitioners and researchers. Most significantly, Vija Lusebrink has worked extensively over the past four to five decades to develop a deeper understanding of this. Lusebrink is a founder of a framework called the Expressive Arts Continuum (ETC) which identifies creativity as a key factor in promoting good mental health. One of the ways in this occurs is by means of neuroplasticity. Basically, when a person engages in the creative process in therapy, doing so promotes changes in the brain’s pathways or creates new pathways. In summary, the act of being creative and/or unblocking creativity within art psychotherapy is associated with promoting higher brain functioning which is transferable to other areas of life (Lusebrink, 2010; Malchiodi, 2013; Rubin, 2003).

Stay tuned and follow this blog for further discussions on the benefits of art making and mental health.







Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Silvia, P. J., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). Creative Cognition and Brain Network Dynamics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences,20(2), 87-95. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.10.004

Lusebrink, V. B. (2004). Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy. Art Therapy, 21(3), 125-135. doi:10.1080/07421656.2004.10129496

Lusebrink, V. (2010). Assessment and Therapeutic Application of the Expressive Therapies Continuum: Implications for Brain Structures and Functions. Art Therapy, 27(4), 168-177. doi: 10.1080/07421656.2010.10129380

Malchiodi, C.  (2013) Creative Process/Therapeutic Process: Parallels and Interfaces, Art Therapy, 5:2,52-58, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.1988.10758841

Rubin, J. (2003). The Role of Creativity in Art Therapy and Art Education. Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 16(1), 10-16. doi: 10.1080/08322473.2003.11432252

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