There are still many areas in the field of art therapy that are in need of investigation. However, studies on how various activities (coloring, doodling and drawing) impact mood and self-regulation continue to emerge; here are three recent studies that add to a growing understanding of these activities’ influence on general well-being:
1) Forkosh and Drake (2017) Coloring Versus Drawing: Effects of Cognitive Demand on Mood Repair, Flow, and Enjoyment. Participants were asked to think of the saddest event that had happened to them and write down a short description of the event; they also were guided through a short visualization that asked them to focus on sensory qualities of the event such as sights, sounds, and feelings. They were then randomly assigned to perform one of three activities: coloring a design, drawing a design or drawing to express the sad event. Positive and negative affect, enjoyment and flow state were measured. In brief, drawing to distract [coloring and drawing a design] improved positive affect more than drawing to express emotion, suggesting that coloring a pre-drawn design and drawing a design led to fewer mood-congruent thoughts and thus a greater mood improvement. Among other findings, this research concluded that coloring a design resulted in greater states of flow that drawing a design for non-artist participants.
2) Northcott and Frein (2017). The Effect of Drawing Exercises on Mood When Negative Affect Is Not Induced. Three activities—drawing, writing or sitting quietly—were investigated; participants were assigned to one of the three conditions. The writing group was asked to “use the next 10 minutes to write whatever you like.” The drawing group was asked to “use the next 10 minutes to draw whatever you like.” The third group was instructed to “use the next 10 minutes to sit quietly.” A pre- and post test (Positive and Negative Affect Scale) was used to evaluate affect. In brief, the researchers found that both the drawing activity and the writing activity lowered negative affect; drawing, however, did not significantly change positive affect. In contrast to Forkosh and Drake study, the researchers did not use a negative induction procedure [aka: think of a sad or negative event or experience] prior to introducing participants to one of the three conditions. They conclude that drawing may be useful to improve mood in general as opposed to only being useful as mood repair after a negative event or experience.
3) Kaimal et al (2017). Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. Participants wearing fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) headbands that measure blood flow in the brain engaged in three different art activities for three minutes each; specifically, the measurements focused on blood flow in the areas of the brain thought to be related to rewards pathways. The three activities included coloring in a mandala, doodling within or around circle design on paper and a free drawing session. During all the activities, an increased blood flow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex was present in comparison to rest periods in between the activities where blood flow decreased to normal rates. Doodling in or around the circle design had the highest measured blood flow increase across participants, although the differences between activities was not statistically significant.
These three studies are of potential interest to art therapists, expressive arts therapists and those practitioners who use arts-based approaches in work with children, adults, families and groups. Additionally, these studies seem to indicate a continuing fascination with how various art-based activities may support self-regulation, distraction and/or positive [“feel good”] sensations and perceptions as a result of engagement simple activities such as coloring, doodling or drawing. In all fairness, a couple of the studies propose possible applications that are relevant to the practice of psychotherapy versus simple activity-driven therapy. For example, the Forkosh and Drake study propose a connection between the self-regulatory benefits of coloring and certain drawing tasks within the scope of intervention for psychological trauma. In other words, the relaxing effects achieved through coloring might somehow distract or mediate the often hyperactivating moments during therapy when stressful memories are expressed. While this conclusion is tenuous, it does at least invite critical examination from the art therapy community on just how this basic research may be translated into psychotherapeutic practice.
As I have highlighted in previous research summaries [see Creativity and Emotional Well-Being], recent studies often are directed at how a particular art activity supports positivity or reduces stress, serving as either a mood regulator or as a distraction from negative affect. While a self-soothing, reward-driven art activity can be helpful to most individuals, art therapy research lately seems to be leaning more heavily into studying activities that include coloring, doodling and drawing. In part, this may reflect the cultural trends that value coloring books and doodling as self-care and at-home treatment and art therapy’s current love affair with neuroscience.
But let’s also remember that art therapy is not simply about applying an activity to help someone “chill out” or calm down. As a 30+ year practitioner in the field of art therapy, I am left wondering when or if the relational component of the “art psychotherapeutic dynamic” will filter into published research investigations. Those of us who recognize the deeper role of art making in health and well-being understand that it is far more than distraction or a mood-regulator. It is a process that integrates the complexities of the creative process to assist and support exploration of what may be uncomfortable or conflictual for the individual. Likewise, art therapy is also about helping individuals recognize personal resilience, achieve insight, instill hope and make meaning through creative expression. Granted, these are more difficult areas for research, but essential to the future of art therapy clinical practice, methodologies and the profession.
Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
© 2017 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
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Jennifer Forkosh & Jennifer E. Drake (2017) Coloring Versus Drawing: Effects of Cognitive Demand on Mood Repair, Flow, and Enjoyment. Art Therapy, 34:2, 75-82, DOI: 10.1080/07421656.2017.1327272.
Jessica L. Northcott & Scott T. Frein (2017) The Effect of Drawing Exercises on Mood When Negative Affect Is Not Induced. Art Therapy, 34:2, 92-95, DOI:10.1080/07421656.2017.1326227.
Girija Kaimal, Hasan Ayaz, Joanna Herres, Rebekka Dieterich-Hartwell, Bindal Makwana, Donna H. Kaiser, Jennifer A. Nasser (2017) Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 55: 85 DOI: 10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.00