Drawing People Together

New research shows that visual art can do more than add beauty to your events — it can help build connections.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Columbus Educon

PCMA EduCon 2021 attendees paint parts of a mural project that was completed during four PCMA events over two years. Research shows that incorporating art into your events can promote strong connections. (Whatever Media Group)

There’s a solid link between something as simple as spending a few moments coloring and our sense of well-being, write Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, authors of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us. It can have the same stress-reducing effect on our brains as meditation, they write, shutting down outside noise and ramping up our focus.

But new studies are now looking at how art not only benefits our personal health, but also our social relationships. By analyzing thousands of brain images, researchers have found that the same parts of our brain that light up when we are learning and using social skills come online when we engage with art. “Art recruits the same brain networks as complex social behavior,” wrote the authors of the article “More Than Meets the Eye: Art Engages the Social Brain,” published by Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2022, and “essentially engages the social brain.”

The authors of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us write that art can have the same stress-reducing effect on our brains as meditation.

The research would come as no surprise to Chris Bent, founder of Piccles, an app that can be used on people’s laptops and smartphones to create and share their art in online galleries. Bent founded Piccles in 2016 as a kind of an interactive coloring book that would provide a creative outlet for himself and others. He soon discovered, Bent told Convene, its potential for creating not just art, but connections between people.

Piccles’ clients have ranged from art therapists, teachers, and a children’s hospital, and it has been a natural fit for events, “where many of the participants are there to network,” Bent said. Bahaa Chmait, founder of Salt Lake City–based JOYMOB Events, recently used the Piccles app at an event for design thinkers, where participants were asked to pair up and take turns drawing portraits of the people sitting across from them using the app on their phones — without looking at what they were doing. Bent designed Piccles to bring down barriers to creative expression — think doodling rather than creating masterpieces — but being asked to draw can be intimidating, he said. And, Bent said, “it’s uncomfortable because you’re staring at a new person. That’s already a little bit scary for a lot of people who are just used to staying in their bubble.” Participants loved it, Chmait reported to Bent. “It just broke the ice immediately,” Bent said. Drawing “gives people something to laugh about, something to talk about and do together. And I think that act of doing something together with that shared vulnerability really brings people together.”

The researchers who studied art’s effect on our social brains mapped heightened neural activity in multiple cognitive networks, including those related to emotions, which explains how incorporating art into your events can also promote strong connections. Over the years, Bent has seen how art makes it easier for event participants to share what they are feeling on a variety of topics, he said. “Drawing how you feel is easier than talking about it. When we have a thought, it doesn’t appear as words, it appears as an image and then we translate that image into words when we need to convey it to someone else. So, by taking our thoughts and drawing them — or in this case, taking our feelings and drawing them — it can be a more accurate and authentic representation of how we’re feeling.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

Listen to the Your Brain on Art Authors

In the video below, Your Brain on Art authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross discuss the effects of art on health, community, and more at the Aspen Institute in 2023.

Read More

Read past articles in the Meetings and Your Brain archive.

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