Do Artists Have Unique Brains?

“The artist group had significantly more grey matter in an area of the brain.”

A BBC news story reports on research that concludes “Artists have structurally different brains compared with non-artists. Brain scans revealed that artists had increased neural matter in areas relating to fine motor movements and visual imagery.

brain scan - Human Connectome Project“The research, published in NeuroImage, suggests that an artist’s talent could be innate. But training and environmental upbringing also play crucial roles in their ability, the authors report.”

With the flood of brain imaging studies, it is worth noting there are critiques of the validity and meaning of the technology.

The image is from an article whose authors comment:

“The brain is said to be the final scientific frontier, and rightly so in our view. Yet, in many quarters, brain-based explanations appear to be granted a kind of inherent superiority over all other ways of accounting for human behaviour.

“We call this assumption ‘neurocentrism’ – the view that human experience and behaviour can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain.”

From article Human behaviour: is it all in the brain – or the mind? By Sally Satel and Scott O Lilienfeld, The Observer, 29 June 2013.

Their book: Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.

Back to the BBC news story: this was a small research study, involving brain scans of 21 art students compared to 23 non-artists.

The lead author of the study Rebecca Chamberlain said, “The people 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.”

Brain scans “revealed that the artist group had significantly more grey matter in an area of the brain called the precuneus in the parietal lobe,” the article notes.

“This region is involved in a range of functions but potentially in things that could be linked to creativity, like visual imagery – being able to manipulate visual images in your brain, combine them and deconstruct them,” explained Dr. Chamberlain.

Human Connectome ProjectAnother author of the paper, Chris McManus from University College London, said it was difficult to distinguish what aspect of artistic talent was innate or learnt.

“We would need to do further studies where we look at teenagers and see how they develop in their drawing as they grow older – but I think [this study] has given us a handle on how we could begin to look at this.”

Ellen Winner, PhD, who was not involved in the study, commented that it was very interesting research, which 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.”

From article: Artists ‘have structurally different brains’ By Melissa Hogenboom, BBC Radio Science 17 April 2014.

[Brain scan images from the Human Connectome Project.]

[A source of neuroscience studies (and a wide range of other topics) is the Facebook group The Brain Cafe.]

For more on that topic, see my article Left Brain, Right Brain – Creativity And Innovation – As popular and appealing as the concept of “right brain creativity” may be, it can also be a misleading oversimplification. A number of writers and neuroscientists encourage an integration of thinking, using both sides of our brain/mind.

Ellen Winner of Boston College directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. She is the author of books including:

Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts.
Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education.

See more quotes by Ellen Winner (from her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities) in my article The Complex Personality of Creative People.

See more articles on neuroscience at the main site: Talent Development Resources.

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