Creativity is one of the brain’s biggest workouts. It accesses different and rarely used areas of the brain, and artistic skills learned can stay embedded in the brains reservoirs for decades. According to studies, this type of brain exercise can help prevent and treat age-related conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Staying mentally active has long been connected to offsetting neurological conditions, as the increased activity helps keep the brain sharp and the information flowing. But practising art and creativity in particular has some interesting results.
In one study by St Michael’s hospital in Toronto, researchers found that while sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s couldn’t remember simple tasks, they could continue to use their artistic skills to draw spontaneously and from memory.
One artist that was studied, Mary Hecht, could draw faces from memory from nearly 20 years earlier, yet couldn’t draw simple objects like a clock or a cube. She produced beautiful copper sculptures well up to her death in 2013, but her case was a fascinating one for researchers of dementia and Alzheimers.

Sculpture by Mary Hecht

“We discovered that there is a disproportion between the degree that artists lose some of their memory function, their orientation and other day-to-day cognitive functions. But at the same time, some of their art form is preserved,” Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital memory clinic and lead author of the 2013 research paper on the subject, told CBC News.
It is this type of muscle memory and long-term memory that helps people suffering from these debilitating diseases stay active creatively. The reasons for this, Hecht’s researchers say, is that art can bypass language for Alzheimers patients. Art and music both draw from different parts of the brain separate from language, and helps the brain build a new communication path.
It is this type of brain activity that makes studying art useful both early and late in life.

Here are some ways you can use art therapy to practise the arts, improve your skill and create neural pathways that will help keep your brain healthy.

– Look outside
Nature is all around us, and is one of the biggest inspirations for artists throughout history. Stepping outside with a sketchbook, travel easel, some paint or just a pencil will help invigorate your senses to see nature in an artistic way. It also can teach you about colour, since nature’s palette is unlimited. The light is constantly changing, forcing you to paint quickly and with confidence. On most days you’ll have about three hours to paint before the light starts changing, which is more than enough time to create detailed, colourful works of art and train your artistic eye.

-Look to yourself
Hand studies are said to be some of the hardest projects an artist can do, but studying your own hand in different poses can immensely help your skill. They are always available in our field of vision, and with a small mirror we can reference them from all angles. Contort your hand in different poses and see how this changes how you draw each finger and where the shadows are. It is one of the best ways to manipulate objects and will teach you a lot about how movement changes anatomy, without getting a model to pose for you. You can do it literally at any time! After a few poses, you’ll start to get the hang of it, your confidence will increase and you’ll find hands won’t be so scary to tackle!

-Basic shapes and colours
Making art out of shapes and colours can be difficult, but once you realize that not all art has to be realistic it can be a very fun activity! Start out with some shapes and colour them in. Add patterns or textures with paint or pencil crayon. Keep adding them until you have a good balance between white space and your colourful objects. Play around with the shapes too – they don’t have to be just circles and squares! Geometry is a big part of art, so have fun experimenthing with lines and angles. This simple activity will strengthen your ability to use abstraction to create works that are strong in emotion, shape and colour.

– Practicing zentangle
Zentangle is an artform that emphasizes doodles, patterns and detail. The name comes from being in a zen-like state, where you are in touch with yourself, your surroundings and what you’re feeling. ‘Tangle’ comes from how the art ends up looking, l a mess of lines, shapes and colours tangled together to create a cohesive work of art. Zentangle can be meshed with real life objects or just abstraction, and can be a very satisfying past time. The art of drawing each pattern is very soothing, and can be an excellent stress-reliever.
Taking time out each day to practise these simpler art forms can greatly enhance your cognitive functions, and the more you practise them the stronger your brain’s artistic neural pathways will become!