Feature

  • Drawing improves children's moods by helping to distract them, find researchers at Brooklyn College and Boston College. Scientists induced a negative mood in 83 children — 43 who were ages 6 to 8 and 40 who were ages 10 to 12 — by having them recall a disappointing episode in their lives. Then, the youngsters drew either a scene related to the disappointing episode (the venting condition) or a neutral scene unrelated to it (the distraction condition). The children rated their moods both before and after the drawing activity. The researchers found that the children's short-term moods improved more in the distraction condition than in the venting condition. The researchers also examined whether distraction would have a stronger effect for younger than older children, given that younger kids report that they enjoy drawing more and see themselves as drawing more competently than older children. However, the "distraction" effect applied equally to both younger and older children, the team found (Cognition and Emotion, April 2013).
  • Happiness and creativity go hand in hand, find researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The scientists randomly sampled the feelings and actions of 79 young adults over a week using automated cellphone surveys. People reported doing something creative around 20 percent of the time, and those who generally reported feeling happy and active were much more likely to be doing something creative in a given moment, such as making up their own recipes, writing, playing music or drawing. In addition, those who scored higher in openness to experience were much more likely to spend time on creative activities than others. The findings support a theory that everyday creative behavior is both a cause and an effect of positive psychological processes, according to the researchers (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, online, Feb. 10). 
  • Whether you brood or actively reflect helps determine whether you slump into depression or jump into creativity, finds a study led by a Georgia Institute of Technology scientist. In testing 244 college students, researchers examined how two types of self-focused rumination — brooding as opposed to self-reflective pondering, or purposefully turning inward to consider your life more analytically — were related to creativity or depressed mood. Brooding was linked to depressed mood but not to creativity, the team found. Self-reflective pondering was linked to creativity and not to depressed mood. The study provides further insight on a previous finding that rumination is a common denominator of creative behavior and depression (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, online, Feb. 10). 
  • People with different subtypes of bipolar disorder report similarly high levels of creativity during manic or hypomanic episodes, though they differ somewhat in the types of creative enterprises they seek out, finds a study by investigators at the University of New South Wales. The team compared self-reported creativity and illness patterns among 219 participants diagnosed with either bipolar I disorder or bipolar II disorder, which encompasses less severe mania (hypomania) than bipolar I disorder but involves more severe depression. Eighty-four percent of bipolar I patients reported being creative during a manic episode, compared with 81 percent of bipolar II patients during a hypomanic episode. In a subset of 69 participants, both subtypes reported greater creativity in writing, painting and work or business ideas, but bipolar II patients were more likely to draw and be musical. In addition, patients who said they had creative highs were significantly more likely to report creative personality styles in general (Journal of Affective Disorders, December 2013). 
  • People with different patterns of emotion regulation prefer different types of artistic subject matter, find researchers at the University of Rome–Sapienza. Scientists divided 100 adults into two groups, one that scored high and the other low on measures of alexithymia, a subclinical difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions. The participants were asked to evaluate 20 works of art on cognitive, emotional and aesthetic dimensions. Low-alexithymic participants preferred pictures showing excitation, such as Francesco Hayez's "The Kiss," which depicts a couple in a passionate embrace. High-alexithymic individuals were more likely to appreciate emotionally contained subjects, such as Edward Hopper's "Railroad Sunset," which features a dark, empty railroad depot against a stark though colorful sunset. The results indicate the need to include measures of emotional regulation in a comprehensive model of aesthetic experience, the researchers say (Creativity Research Journal, July 2013). 
  • Acting classes may help people avoid unhealthy emotional behaviors and adopt healthy ones, find two reports on the same study by researchers at Boston College. In one report, 28 adolescents who majored in acting at a performing arts high school engaged less in "expression suppression" — inhibiting their emotional expression in a way research shows is unhealthy over the long term — than 25 peers who majored in the visual arts or music. Meanwhile, 35 elementary school-age children were less likely to suppress emotional expression after 10 months of acting than 40 peers in a visual-arts class (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, May 2013). An earlier report on the same study showed that the teens in acting classes improved both in empathy and in theory of mind — the ability to gauge others' intentional states, including whether they are different from your own — after a year of acting classes, and younger acting students gained in empathy. Peers in both age groups who took visual arts or music classes showed no such gains. The findings provide evidence that plasticity in empathy and theory of mind is possible long after what are considered the watershed ages of 3 to 4 years, the authors write (Journal of Cognition and Development, online, Nov. 14, 2011).
  • Teens involved in after-school arts activities scored higher on depressive symptoms than those who were not involved in after-school arts, squaring with findings showing relatively high rates of mental illness in adult artists, find researchers at Boston College. In their sample of 2,482 15- and 16-year-olds, the researchers found a link between arts involvement and depression scores only in teens with working memory scores above the median. It has been proposed that shared cognitive traits — for example the failure to habituate normally to excessive stimuli, which in turn can lead to a sense of cognitive overload — may underlie both a propensity to practice art and associated mental illness. Strong working memory, as found in teens who are both involved in art and show depressive symptoms, may facilitate the adaptive use of these cognitive traits by allowing people to use additional information to produce meaningful artistic or creative products, the researchers note (Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, May 2013).

— Tori DeAngelis