Art therapy — often used in combination with traditional psychotherapeutic theories and techniques has been touted as a way for us to connect with our creative selves. Now, research has gone a step further, suggesting that art therapy in the form of creative doodling helps people stay focused, grasp new ideas and even retain information.

Although doodling has been considered a mindless activity, many of us have experienced how this activity keeps our minds engaged during those long, often tedious, business meetings. In fact, info-doodles constructed on white boards have helped us map out more effective conversations on problems begging our resolution.

Doodling — something many of us do while on hold on our phones — definitely addresses moments of boredom. But doodling may have a higher purpose.

In a previous study, researcher Jackie Andrade played a monotonous mock voicemail to a group of 40 volunteers. Some were asked to doodle, while others simply listened to the message. Interestingly, the doodlers remembered 29 percent more details than the nondoodling group.

Today, self-expression in the form of coloring books is becoming increasingly popular among adults, but the differences in brain activation and the perceived rewards of engaging visual expression are not well understood.

There are currently no studies using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology to examine activation during visual expression. However, there are a number of investigations that have demonstrated the activation of the prefrontal cortex during visual arts activities using other technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain regions associated with drawing skills.

A recent study, co-authored by Drexel faculty including Jennifer Nasser, Ph.D., and Hasan Ayaz, Ph.D., showed that coloring, doodling and drawing increased blood flow to the part of the brain's reward pathways. The team, led by Girija Kaimal, Ed.D., assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, used fNIRS technology to measure blood flow to the prefrontal cortex while study participants completed a variety of art projects.

The aim of the study was to assess reward perception by measuring the mPFC response during execution of three forms of visual self-expression. The main hypothesis guiding the study was that the free-drawing form of self-expression would evoke the most reward activation compared to the other two forms — coloring and doodling.

The researchers also hypothesized that the reward activation would be greater for artists compared to nonartists, given their familiarity with art media. With the sequence of tasks from structured (coloring in a mandala) to less structured (doodling within or around a circle) to unstructured (free drawing), the team expected that the participants would feel more creative at the end of the sessions compared with the beginning of the sessions.

The study included 26 participants: 11 artists (4 men, 7 women) and 15 nonartists (7 men, 8 women). Participants ranged in age from 20 to 60 years. The results of this pilot study indicate that all three creative self-expression conditions activated the medial prefrontal cortex and the reward pathway in a way that was significantly different from the rest conditions.

During all three activities, there was a measured increase in blood flow in the brain's prefrontal cortex, compared to rest periods during which blood flow decreased to normal rates, suggesting that the participants were experiencing feelings related to being rewarded.

Doodling in or around the circle had the highest average measured blood flow increase in the reward pathway compared to free drawing (the next highest) and coloring. Doodling initiated the most brain activity in artists, but free drawing was the same for artists and nonartists. The set coloring activity actually resulted in negative brain activity in artists.

Among other implications of the study, the observation that any form of art-making resulted in the significant feelings of reward are compelling, particularly for art therapists who view art as a valuable mental health tool.