Art Therapy: Neuroscience and Brain Injury

Art Therapy: An Exciting Breakthrough in Neuroscience

Media used in art therapy. Image credit: TalkAbout ‘Tete MV’ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Anna Sandoval, an artist and Clinical Art Therapist, spoke with our brain injury support group on January 23rd, 2014 about the role of art therapy in brain trauma recovery. Anna presented an engrossing factual lecture followed by a hands-on exercise in mandala drawing.

Because neuroscience has recognized that images are important for the brain, art becomes a key tool for stimulating the senses and connecting left brain (language/logic) and right brain (creativity). Anna explained that art therapy stimulates other parts of the brain, igniting neurons that can often compensate for those damaged in brain injury.

The role of the art therapist is to facilitate the process by which a deeper awareness on the part of the client can be achieved and to help clients “read” the images they make. As Anna stressed, the “images never lie,” so drawings can be used as a focus for discussing feelings and self-esteem issues… and to see pictorially how a person perceives himself or herself. Art allows people to express in pictures feelings and memories that may be too difficult to express verbally, thus allowing the trauma to be externalized and ultimately healed.

Anna showed a brief movie about a stroke patient who had lost much of his verbal communication skills, along with the use of his right arm and hand. Needless to say, the gentleman ended up feeling quite depressed… until one day, he broke through to something new when he started doodling on a piece of paper. Over time, his doodles transformed into works of art that won awards and led to gallery showings. Even with his “limitations,” he was able to compensate in other areas and became an active part of the world in a highly productive way.

Anna’s hands-on demonstration had us all making mandalas with oil pastels. “Mandala” is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” and we were asked to draw a representation of ourselves in a circle that had been drawn on a piece of white paper, which everyone received. Anna explained that a mandala is a frame for order and gave us 10 minutes to draw how we saw ourselves… within the circle.

A few drawings were shown around the room and Anna asked each person to interpret what they had drawn. The pictures and their meanings were wonderful. Because art bridges the left and right brain, the creative process can flow more freely, unhampered by left brain judgments or shortcomings. The mandalas shown around the room were proof of that. And Anna demonstrated her skill as an art therapist as she drew out the thoughts each person had of the “self” they had drawn inside their circle.

This was an impressive presentation, and it was obviously enjoyed by everyone in the room… plus we now all have a new resource to add to our cognitive rehabilitation toolbox.

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