Do Artists have Different Brains?

After yesterday's blog on strange paintings I'm sure we all think some artists definitely have different brains to the rest of us and many of them most definitely see the world differently. No pictures today. All text and brain food.

I’m interested in what goes on in my head and how I process information because when I was an academic my field of research was schematic theory and metacognition.

My head is full of images, mostly stored away in my MindStudio ready to be dragged out when I want to start a new painting. As I Mindpaint a picture I consciously manipulate in my mind how the image looks. When I actually paint the picture I try to match the image to the one I have in my head. I imagine most artists and photographers do this. Importantly I do not have images of words in my head, I have pictures, colours, shapes.

There is also a strong connection between my mind and my hands. I often Air Paint my ideas as I go about my daily activities. Sometimes I see an image and I might spend a few minutes standing in front of it (say an old building, a person) and practise painting or drawing them in my mind.

But let's look at the research. Do artists really have different brains? Yes, it would seem so as Melissa Hogenboom from BBC Radio Science reported in 17 April 2014. The research, conducted by Rebecca Chamberlain et al. from KU Leuven, Belgium suggested that although environment and education are essential to the development of artistic ability, it is likely that much of this ability is innate.

The results showed that artists have structurally different brains compared with non-artists as revealed by brain scans. Artists had increased neural matter in areas relating to fine motor movements and procedural memory. “This region is involved in a range of functions but potentially in things that could be linked to creativity, like visual imagery - being able to manipulate visual images in your brain, combine them and deconstruct them,” Dr Chamberlain told the BBC's Inside Science programme.Those better at drawing had increased grey and white matter in the cerebellum and also in the supplementary motor area - both areas that are involved with fine motor control and performance of routine actions.

Dr Chamberlain explained that from looking at related studies of other creative people, such as musicians, it suggests that these individuals have enhanced processing in these areas... (and that) 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.

Ellen Winner of Boston College, (not involved with the study) said it should help put to rest the facile claims that artists use 'the right side of their brain' given that increased grey and white matter were found in the art group in both left and right structures of the brain.

I found another study that sought to understand the *biology of creativity tagged the Big C project presented by the Chief of Medical Psychology and Neuropsychology Robert Bilder at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience to the Society for Neuroscience of Creativity.

Little C” creativity can be found in nearly all people; “Big C” creativity is relatively rare, involves breakthrough thinking and can be associated with greatness.

The Big C project studied differences in creativity between internationally renowned artists and scientists who have been acknowledged by their peers as showing high levels of innovation in their work.

It is not necessary to go into the research design as I just want to alert you to these interesting ideas and opinions. This study showed, following a series of word-association exercises: in the scientists a particular randomness in the organization of their functional brain networks, which was greater than the patterns of neural activity of the smart control group.

And in the artists' brains? Their level of randomness placed in between the two groups (scientists versus smart but not creative). What is it about the randomness in brain connections that enables scientific creativity and seems to be present more in scientists than in the brains of such subjects as artist Doug Aitken, fine-art photographer Catherine Opie and conceptual artist Glenn Kaino? No one knows the answer yet, but now we have evidence of a relationship between brain organization and creativity.

This study also found there seems to be an increase in the amount of brain tissue dedicated to visual processing and high-level visual integration centers for the artists. So this raises the question: Are these artists born and genetically predisposed to becoming artists because they have more brain allocated to that purpose? Or, through practice and hard work, did they build up and exercise these regions of their brain so much that they grew in volume? They also found that visual artists had more unusual perceptions, odd speech and more socially divergent tendencies. In contrast the scientists were more likely to be married with beliefs that aligned with the smart controls.

This same group of researchers found in another study that there is an interesting correlation with agreeableness. We found that less agreeable people tend to be more creative. The researchers suggested that artists have aspects of non-conformism or challenging the status quo.

Well, I'm off to throw a tantrum! And for what it's worth my opinion is this:

Artists might have different brains and difficult personalities but I believe the environment and education still weigh heavier. Expose you children to the world of art. Surround them with their favourite pictures, talk to them about your favourite pictures. Make sure when your are reading their bedtime stories you talk about the illustrations. Make sure you expose them to picture books especially the more advanced ones in the market. And as I have often stressed, talk to them about their environment- observe, compare, record the world around them. And definitely don't accept their tantrums!!

Tomorrow? Fractals and the Mandelbrot Set

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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