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Making Art (No Matter How Late in Life) Can Benefit Your Mental Health

Why do we love art, even when we’re terrible at making it ourselves?

Science shows that our brains are wired for visual cues. The areas of our brains that light up when we look at art are also the areas “involved in vision, pleasure, memory, recognition and emotions, in addition to systems that underlie the conscious processing of new information to give it meaning,” according to a Wall Street Journal write-up of a study on neuroaesthetics.

So it’s not a huge leap to question whether art can also change the way our minds work. And a new study shows that it just might.

Over a 10-week period, scientists at the University Hospital Erlangen in Germany took a group of 28 men and women ages 62 to 70 and split them up to participate in one of two classes — a hands-on art class, or an art appreciation class. Before the classes began, the participants took an emotional resilience test and had brain scans taken. At the end of the study, they took the same test, and new brain scans were taken.

What the scientists found was great news for people worried about mental deterioration in older age. Those participants who took the hands-on art class showed a “significant improvement in psychological resilience” that the other participants did not. When the scientists took a look at the new brain scans, they also found a marked difference between the brains of the hands-on participants. They showed improved “effective interaction” in what’s known as the “default mode network,” which is the area of the brain associated with processes such as memory, introspection, and self-monitoring. The scientists believe that, with enough hands-on art-making, one could potentially stop or even reverse mental decay.

Though they don’t have answers yet as to why those who took the art appreciation class didn’t experience the same benefits, it may have to do with the combination of skills required to follow, understand, and imitate what they were being taught, while still expressing their own personal creativity. Science has recently found that choosing to write by hand instead of typing can also be extremely beneficial for our brains and our creativity — and it may be that those same mechanisms are what helps our minds stay healthy when we choose to pick up a paintbrush.

It’s been discovered as well that “openness” — or the willingness to entertain novel ideas and be mentally flexible — predicts a longer life as well. Which could explain why creative types such as Picasso and Norman Mailer were able to keep working well into their older years.

Whatever the case may be, don’t give up on your artistic dreams yet! Even if you suck, at least you’ll know you’re keeping yourself healthy.

[Pic via Flickr - Michelle Tribe]

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