Increased Neural Matter? Yes, Please!


I often tell my private lesson students that learning to draw exercises parts of the brain that are sometimes less developed in our culture. But learning to draw is helpful for both kids in school and adults in the workplace. Science is starting to show proof of this, which I find to be pretty exciting confirmation of what I’ve seen in the studio for two decades.

Artists’ Brains Have More Neural Matter in Areas of Visual Imagery, Fine Motor Skills, and Procedural Memory

Follow this link to a recent article published in the BBC by Melissa Hogenboom, titled Artists Have Structurally Different Brains. The article reveals scientists’ findings on brain scans of artists. These scans show artists’ brains have more neural matter in areas of visual imagery, fine motor skills, and procedural memory. Now that visual imagery brain development is not a real surprise, nor is the implication of more developed fine motor skills. And while procedural memory isn’t really a shocking finding, it reinforces what I’ve been saying to parents and adult students alike: learning to draw helps develop problem-solving skills.

The Importance of Procedural Memory

What is the connection between procedural memory and problem-solving skills? Procedural memory is the type of memory used to complete action tasks like climbing stairs or driving. It is the memory it takes to repeat a process. It is different than declarative memory, which enables us to remember things like our address or memorize facts for a test. In Western educational systems and workplaces, there is a strong emphasis on declarative memory. There are fewer opportunities to develop our procedural memory. However, kids and adults need tangible experiences to inform their problem-solving. Otherwise, we could potentially all decide that slithering up the stairs might be an efficient way to get from downstairs to upstairs. It is our experience in trying to navigate the stairs when we are young that informs us about how to proceed on the stairs as we get older.

Procedural Memory Can Be Applied to Different Areas of Operations

So when your 9-year-old daughter or your employee of 9 years can use the act of drawing to learn a new process, they will be molding their brain to create new neural pathways in the area of procedural memory. They’ll see that when they hold the pencil a certain way or press the pencil with so much or so little pressure, they will alter their results on the page. This training may be less relevant to memorizing this week’s spelling words or remembering that your client in Ohio asked you to call her back at 4:30 pm.

However, it could be really useful for everyday tasks. Tasks like getting your wee ones to crack eggs for breakfast without having to eat the shell or aiding your adult employees to pull off the most fabulous client appreciation soiree in your conference room rather than an expensive rented venue. The physical experience that extends our procedural memory can be applied to different areas of operations as we’re taking on other tasks in both home, school, and work life.

Our Brains Are Complicated Beasts

The other finding of note: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain just ain’t the truth, y’all! ‘Ellen Winner of Boston College, US, who was not involved with the study, commented that it was very interesting research. She 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”.’

Our brains are complicated beasts. The more we feed them, the stronger they will grow. Is anyone ready for another serving of neural matter exercises? Yes, please! Let me just sharpen my pencil!

For more reading on this subject, see the original publication Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Analysis of Observational Drawing.