Art and the Creative Brain

Kenneth Wesson

Educational Consultant, Neuroscience

The European Union designated 2009 as the European Year of Creativity and Innovation. With topics ranging from “the Neuroscience of Creativity” to the role of art in engineering, a series of international conferences convened throughout Europe. One question surfacing consistently was, “How do we teach, nurture and maximize mental imagery to help produce more scientists and engineers in the future?” What, one might also ask, constitutes the most effective educational path to creativity, inventiveness, innovation and future survival?

Our current global challenges require that we cultivate well-trained creative minds to craft for us the novel strategies and innovative solutions to our future problems. Sustaining the worldwide economies will be contingent upon how young minds get fine-tuned from Kindergarten through graduate school.

Poet Nouri Sardar once said, “poetry paints pictures in the mind.” However, visual imagery is what inspires innovative designs in the minds of inventors, scientists, architects and engineers.

Vision and the Brain

We say that we “see” with our eyes, but vision is more accomplished by specialized brain cells. Light enters the eyes from the external world and gets transmitted from the retina to the primary visual cortex, where the incoming information is converted into an elaborate neural code that the brain deploys to interpret, process and use that information as the basis for planning our response. In the human brain, a considerable amount of cortical real estate is chiefly dedicated to processing information sent to the brain from just two sensory centers – the eyes and the skin.

Over 80% of the information entering the human brain does so via the eyes rendering our eyes the foremost doorways for discovery and information. As toddlers develop a keen sense of sight, they also learn to think and remember “in pictures.” Most preschoolers, consequently, develop a fully functioning photographic memory. The loss of this astonishing ability typically coincides with the onset of formal reading instruction, where children ransom their sharp visual memory for symbolic language processing.

Formal introduction in the arts helps preserve one’s ability for image construction and memory if offered regularly. Art adds depth to the K-12 learning experience and makes unparalleled contributions to overall body-brain development.

-Art serves as a creative bridge between one’s mind in the real world
-Art develops the fine motor skills that are prerequisites for writing
-Art helps students visualize the images that the words represent as they are learning how to read
-Art facilities and develops spatial reasoning skills
-Art increases a child’s ability to generate abstractions
-Art engages the body-brain in creative, active learning rather than passive learning experiences
-Art develops patience, sustained attention and self-regulation (control impulsivity)
-Art cultivates several of the Multiple Intelligences identified by Dr. Howard Gardner
-Art develops a whole brain and the whole child
-Art and visual imagery have been key contributors to the human experience far longer than the printed word

Wherever our ancestors roamed, they left proof that humans developed an irresistible compulsion to collect and fabricate eye-catching representational art, which set the cognitive stage for later symbolic representations. Collectively, they laid the groundwork for abstract thinking and all written language forms. Prehistoric cave etchings such as the famous depictions of animals discovered in Lascaux, France remarkably coincided with the permanent descent of the larynx, which made human speech production possible. Similar to the chicken-and-egg conundrum, we ask which came first, art or speech? Did these uniquely human forms of infinite expressions emerge simultaneously?

While tangible proof may be lacking, it does not stretch evolutionary theory too far in speculating that early tribal artists, who were highly skilled in drawing, painting, sculpting, drama, and storytelling, etc., also enjoyed an elevation in social status. Their awe-inspiring ability to harness the arts and simultaneously resurrect exactly the same mental image in the minds of fellow tribesmen, possibly dramatically, raised the standing of the resident artists. Consequently, they were well positioned to pass on a disproportionate number of their genes to subsequent generations. The visual and performing arts have long played a significant role in cultures around the world. Predictable reproduction patterns suggest that the genes of gifted artists would figure prominently in the genetics of modern-day Homo sapiens, which they do. Is it any wonder that art plays a significant role in what we refer to as the “humanities” (the experiences that bring us closest to our human nature)?

In his book Sparks of Genius, Robert Root Bernstein, a MacArthur “genius” himself, described a most intriguing connection between creative genius, science and art. After examining the lives of over 150 renowned scientists from Pasteur to Einstein, it was discovered that many great scientists, inventors and innovators had one trait in common: nearly all were musicians, artists, poets or sculptors on the side. Today, Nobel laureates in the sciences turn out to be 17 times more likely than the average scientist to be a painter, 12 times more likely to be a poet, and 4 times more likely to be a musician. It is no coincidence that Steve Jobs often referred to himself and his colleagues at Apple Computer as “creative artists” rather than as computer technicians.

The Neuroscience of the Creative Mind

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, all of us are extremely creative at least once each day – when we dream at night. Like dreaming, art permits the brain the unrestricted freedom to conjure up mental images of people, places, objects and events that are physically absent at the moment or that may not have ever existed at all!

The hippocampus is a sub-cortical brain structure that plays a prominent role in laying down the neural circuits necessary for new memory formation. Brain-imaging techniques have revealed the heightened levels of activation in the hippocampus, when we are recalling memories, as well as when we daydream. For approximately 30% of our waking hours, we tend to drift off, during which time our brains turn on a “default network” composed of a complex web of brain regions linked to the hippocampus. This network becomes highly active when our minds make a sudden shift from “concentrate” to “wander and wonder.” These unbridled mental excursions (“daydreaming”) bring us to a creative “peak” where we begin to assemble our most unique out-of-the-box creative connections.

Research in 2009 conducted by Sharon Thompson-Schill at the University of Pennsylvania showed that creativity occurs during states of “hypofrontality,” which prompts a decreased state of cognitive control sponsoring a reduction in activity in the prefrontal cortex. When generating new ideas, alpha waves can be recorded in the prefrontal cortex suggesting an internal state of relaxed wakefulness. The reigns that normally control thoughts and behavior are profoundly tranquil prompting the mind to discard the rigid “rules” that commonly restrict creative thinking. The corresponding process by which one evaluates his/her ideas based on their adherence to logic, which is typically conducted by the rule-dominated frontal lobes, is also abandoned.

During these states of hypofrontality there is a significant increase in activation in the occipital lobes (the most posterior region of the cerebral cortex positioned directly above the cerebellum) where visual information gets processed under normal conditions. These creative states of mind prompt an increase in REM (rapid eye movements) suggestive of the nocturnal “dream-like state,” where lower levels of rational processing set the mind “free.” This is why drawing does for the brain during the day, what dreaming does for the brain at night.

Daydreaming sponsors inventiveness when mental pictures help trigger our limitless imagination prior to reaching conscious awareness. We open the mind to a floodgate of nontraditional relationships, unusual couplings, and unconventional ideas. Typically, these connections are best captured through non-linguistic visual representations (illustrations, mind maps, pictures and mental modeling). When verbalized, they appear to be sheer lunacy, because they do not conform to tradition or reality. To assess human creativity, Professor E. Paul Torrance developed the “Creativity Index” in 1957. The correlation between lifetime creative accomplishments and high scores on the Creativity Index revealed that childhood “CQ” was three times stronger as a predictor of lifetime accomplishment than childhood IQ.

Creative thinking, visual spatial thinking and conceptual development are facilitated by massive intricate connections inside the brain. The groundwork for complex thinking is laid when young minds are engaged in simple artistic experiences that serve as the foundations for related complex abstractions.

If I can…                                       Then I am able to…
1. Visualize a concept                     Discuss the images seen in my “mind’s eye”
2. Discuss the images orally             Draw, sketch or paint them
3. Illustrate them                             Process them on a symbolic level
4. Process my symbol(s)                   Interpret similar representational forms
5. Understand these variations         Process multiple representations
                                                          and related abstract forms
6. Hold flexible abstract ideas           Understand what others mean when engaged
      in my mind                                     in discourse on the concept
7. Understand what others mean       Read and comprehend written information
      when discussing the concept

The schools that have reintroduced the arts are already seeing positive gains in student achievement scores. Educational environments in which these skills are taught formally are yielding positive returns on the time invested. While it is possible to listen without thinking (which happens in classrooms daily), it is neurologically impossible to draw or solve problems without thinking. The ultimate mission of our schools is to teach students to think critically and apply information.

The world’s most famous authors, storytellers and public speakers have been deemed “the best,” because of their impressive usage of visual imagery and their ability to paint pictures with words etched clearly in the mind’s eye. Their audiences are treated to an extravagant auditory excursion where they can literally see each detail of a merely verbal landscape. The power of mental pictures can never be overstated.

The Artistic Brain and the Future

Successful learners in the 21st Century must develop a wealth of new skills including visual imagery, visual spatial thinking (VST) and complex abstract thought. However, formal instruction in these areas is seldom found in the contemporary school curriculum. Equally alarming, the number of classroom hours previously reserved for artistic expression continues to diminish annually as one advances through his/her formal years of education. (Standardized testing preparation instead has unashamedly become the stated priority.) A June 2005 Harris poll found that the parents of 90% of America’s school-age children were opposed to school budget cuts that impacted the arts, although the visual and performing arts have been eliminated in most public schools. While participation in the arts was quite commonplace just one generation ago, many American students today receive no in-depth coursework in the arts until they enroll in an institution of higher education.

Technology can help bring your ideas to life, but you need to have ideas first (and opportunities to express them), which is why imagination and innovation should be part of today’s curriculum if one’s education is to be of any future value. With that notion in mind, we must infuse art and visual spatial thinking into every aspect of education that we can, if thinking is truly the purpose of formal education. Every teacher should see himself in the context of an aspiring artist practicing within traditional academic discipline.

William Edwards Deming, best known for guiding the defeated Japanese to a major global economic power following World War II said, “It is not enough to do your best, but to know what to do, and do your best.” Whatever role we play in our community, whether it is an artist, an educator, a parent, an engineer, a scientist or a businessperson, our most important collective role is to inspire the next generation of creative thinkers. Doing so will assure that our species continues to thrive and to survive on planet Earth. That is the world’s most awesome responsibility!


1. Brigman, G., & Campbell, C. (2003). Professional School Counseling, 7, pp. 91-98.
2. Millar, G.W. 2007. E. Paul Torrance, The Creativity Man: An Authorized Biography. Bensenville, Ill.: Scholastic Testing Service.
3. Wesson, K. (2006). American School Board Journal.193 (6), pp. 40-42.


Kenneth Wesson is a former college and university-level faculty member and administrator. He delivers keynote addresses on the “Brain-considerate Classroom” for educational conferences throughout the United States and overseas. In addition to his speeches on the neuroscience of learning, Wesson speaks on the subjects of early brain development, design and engineering, STEM and STREAM, and contextual learning.
Wesson is a regular contributor to Brain World magazine, science journals and science web sites. He has spoken to educators from six of the world’s seven continents and can be seen on PBS and other special programs on brain development.

In the publication, Forecasting Independent Education to 2025, the National Association of Independent Schools acknowledged the contributions of four educational researchers who “have been influential in reshaping the independent school classroom.” Those individuals are Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Kenneth Wesson and Mel Levine.