Making visual art after retirement was shown to be good for brain function in a study carried out in Germany. While it has been generally demonstrated that keeping active when older is good for health and maintaining mental capabilities, this study showed how making visual art specifically supported functional connectivity, which means more interactions among different areas, in the brain and increased psychological resilience; that is, resilience to stress.
The research was carried out at Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-NürnbergIn and was led by Drs. Anne Bolwerk and Christian Maihofner. In the study, 28 post-retirement adults were divided into two groups of subjects. One group actively participated in the production of visual art in an art class for 10 weeks. The other group, called the cognitive art evaluation group, evaluated artwork in a museum in a class that was held for 10 weeks. All 28 subjects had functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains both before and after the 10 week classes. All participants also completed a brief German version of a psychological resilience test, called the Resilience Scale, both before and after the classes.
The results showed that the group that actually produced visual art had significant improvement in the psychological resilience scores. The study also showed that there was spatial improvement in functional connectivity in the brain in the group that created visual art compared to the group that evaluated art in a museum. The functional connectivity in the brain that was observed was in an area of the brain that is associated with cognitive processes like memory, self-monitoring and introspection, which are thought to decline in older age. By inference, participating in a visual art production class may be helpful in arresting this decline. The results also showed that there was a relationship between the fMRI findings and the psychological resilience scores. This correlation supports the observed improvements in the study being attributable to the visual art production activity.
While the study did not analyze the mechanism for the differences found between the two groups, the authors suggested that possibly adding a motor function (using a paint brush, for example) to the cognitive function when making art might have made the difference. Another possibility is that when one is making visual art, choices have to be made and the artist is responsible for making the choice. Focused attention is required when an artist is handling a brush and applying paint to a canvas. When evaluating art, thought processes can be more passive and fluid than when actually making art.
The significance of the study is the message that certain types of tasks may be better than others in keeping healthy and mentally alert during old age. Considering therapy that may be offered to older adults showing mental decline, the study showed that producing visual art may be more beneficial than other types of therapy that may be more passive. Even if the artwork that is produced is not likely to be in a juried show, the act of focusing on getting the paint on the canvas or the pencil line on the paper may do the trick. Making visual art after retirement is a good way to spend time and may even be an optimal way to keep the brain and mind healthy and fit.
By Margaret Lutze