14th century diagram of the brain (via Cambridge University Library)

14th century diagram of the brain (detail) (via Cambridge University Library)

Artists are often deemed “right-brained” thinkers, but new research suggests it may be the actual structure of the brain that lends creative talent.

Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing” was published last month in the peer-reviewed neuroimaging journal NeuroImage. As the study states, “structural brain differences in relation to expertise have been demonstrated in a number of domains including visual perception, spatial navigation, complex motor skills, and musical ability. However no studies have assessed the structural differences associated with representational skills in visual art.”

Taking a rather small group of participants — 21 art students (graduates and undergraduates attending art and design courses in London at Camberwell College of Art and The Royal College of Art) and 23 non-artists, the research team, with members from the University of Leuven, University College London, Middlesex University, Royal College of Art, University of Wales, and University of Sussex used voxel-based morphometry scanning — a type of neuroimaging tuned for the focal differences in white and grey matter — as well as drawing exercises to examine the brain’s response when practicing art. This was the result:

An increase in grey matter density in the left anterior cerebellum and the right medial frontal gyrus was observed in relation to observational drawing ability, whereas artistic training (art students vs. non-art students) was correlated with increased grey matter density in the right precuneus. This suggests that observational drawing ability relates to changes in structures pertaining to fine motor control and procedural memory, and that artistic training in addition is associated with enhancement of structures pertaining to visual imagery.

Illustration of the brain by Shinnin Kawaguchi (19th century) (via National Library of Medicine)

Illustration of the brain by Shinnin Kawaguchi (19th century) (via National Library of Medicine)

In simpler terms, if you have more grey matter (the brain stuff composed primarily of nerve cells which is linked to other grey matter through the brain’s communicative white matter) in certain parts of your brain, that may represent artistic talents. However, it’s through practice that these grey matter areas of visual imagery and motor skills can be strengthened.

Or as leader author Rebecca Chamberlain of the University of Leuven told the BBC in its report published today, those “who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory.” (You can hear more of Chamberlain’s interview on their Inside Science radio program.)

The study’s comprehensive focus “on visuomotor processing and procedural memory” as opposed to prior investigations of “visual perception in isolation from interaction with motor processes” ties the definition of artistry here to the physical experience of drawing, which means the structural differences discovered in the brain attributable to drawing are independent of artistic training. The paper’s conclusions offers some important caveats on the causal relationship between art schooling and changes in brain structure:

[E]xperience with drawing confers structural changes to the anterior cerebellum and SMA [supplementary motor area] and is independent of structural differences associated with artistic training. Artistic training in a more general sense appears to be related to increased GM [grey matter] volume in regions of the precuneus, potentially relating to the ability to create internal visual imagery, however further measures of the various components of artistic ability would help to clarify the link between structural differences in the precuneus and artistic training. Finally, these correlations between grey and white matter and drawing proficiency appear to be independent of the degree of visual arts training and therefore may be diagnostic of proficiency in representational media.

To get a better idea of how brain structure might play a role in art, a broader group of artists from different age groups and practices beyond drawing aptitude would have to be tested, and the researchers acknowledge that this is just one part of the whole, where environment and training is often as important. The research follows other studies on the impact of the differences in grey and white matter on creativity and how differences in the inhibitions of the prefrontal cortex can also impact your ability to tackle creative tasks. While much of the act of creation may stay a neural mystery, these studies help to shed light on how the brain mediates artistic processes.

“Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing” is available online at NeuroImage (subscription needed). 

With additional reporting by Mostafa Heddaya.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...