Drawing and Mental Control

Those who utilize drawing on a regular basis are more adept at engaging a broader range of areas of the brain.

When visual signals enter our eye, they begin their trip to any one of a multitude of final destinations. As you will recall from the work of Wujec and others, information about an object’s identity is stored in the temporal lobe while information pertaining to an object’s location activates the parietal lobe. Chris Frith and John Law go on to explain that the act of drawing excites the same regions of the brain needed to see, and that drawing requires the brain to pull the fragmented bits of information from these areas (about color, shape, size) into a whole, employing the prefrontal cortex to accomplish this recombination of scattered information. This region of the brain then directs motor movements to translate the recombined images into drawings which reside in the real world. They state that “in order to draw, we have to map inner representations of scenes onto inner representations of movements.” Once that mapping has taken place, “the time taken to initiate a movement depends upon its complexity. This result suggests that a program for controlling the whole movement sequence is assembled before the movement is initiated”|Frith, 1995|. Here, Frith and Law describe the first steps in visually turning thoughts into action.

In related research, Aaron Kozbelt from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago, used drawing and perception tasks as a medium for examining how artists (described by Kozbelt as individuals that “spend large amounts of time engaged in drawing, painting, or manipulating other media to produce visual representations”) differ from non-artists on cognitive abilities. He assumed that artists would outperform non-artists on the tasks requiring drawing, but was most interested in how artists would compare in the purely perceptive tasks; if their visual systems were heightened in any way that would offer them an advantage over non-artists in perceiving what they saw. His testing resulted in conclusive evidence that artists are more skilled not only in representing or recreating visual imagery, but also in interpreting visual stimuli |Kozbelt, 2006|. He attributed this higher proficiency on visual tasks to artists’ ability to develop, over time, special categories of knowledge such as perspective systems, anatomy and structures of commonly drawn objects, as well as having a more active prefrontal cortex.


fig. 16. map of brain regions and their associated functions. Although the human brain is much more complex, this simplified map shows the main responsibilities of five major regions of the brain; overlaid in blue are the regions most associated with vision (with the prefrontal cortex responsible for orchestrating the efforts of other brain areas when we are drawing).

While his findings do little in the way of encouraging non-artists to engage in drawing, they do point out another key relationship between drawing and cognition: they are directly proportional, and the rate at which they are employed has a clear impact on our perceptual and recognition abilities. If drawing relies heavily on the brain’s ability to aggregate information from numerous internal areas, then individuals who participate in drawing on a regular basis — thereby maintaining the brain networks which connect these areas — possess stronger cognitive skills for evaluating novel perceptual scenarios. Kozbelt suggests that “flexible, proceduralized knowledge may be important for proficient performance in open [disciplines]” |Kozbelt, 2006|. In short, those who utilize drawing on a regular basis are more adept at engaging a broader range of areas of the brain, leading to a more complete understanding of issues and solutions. This ability relies heavily on a procedural component, or understanding of a process, as opposed to applying a memorized formula to solving analytical problems (how to approach a situation rather than what is present).

This understanding and familiarity with process, with being able to establish the relevancy and priority of the elements of a problem and how they are connected, is a focal point of design-related professions and disciplines. Dan Soltzberg, a member of the design consulting firm Portigal Consulting, reiterates this when describing the role his company plays in helping clients: “It seems like what we are able to identify isn’t a specific equation but a set of factors that influence how situations are constructed and get responded to” |Core77, 2010|. Soltzberg is referring to a way of visually representing the breadth and scope of the problems his clients face, a method that is responsive to the individual nature of the situation at hand.