I am back for the second installment of my Rewiring for Creativity series. If you missed my first post, there I simplified the methods I used for reconnecting to my creative self and feeling passion again. I will be going into more detail each month with anecdotal evidence, scientific research, and some freebies I personally created to apply these concepts into your own practice if you wish to do so. This week I am honing in on doodling, but first, let's go back in time slightly to explain the significance of this tool in my own journey.
It was around early November 2018 when I sat down in my home and watched the first of the DNRS DVDs. Hurricane Michael had come through my area in the weeks prior and it was an opportunity for me to see that my limbic system was still imprinted by experiences I had during my teen years with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Ivan. Even as I type this now, it’s amazing to not feel the emotional weight those names once prompted and that brings an added awareness to how much healing has taken place through neural retraining, or brain gardening™ as I prefer to call it. I won’t be discussing the experiences that led me to rewire in this blog, but if you are interested in learning about my recovery story, it is available on braingardening.com. After shuffling around from specialist to specialist for the physical conditions I had developed as a result of post-traumatic stress and insufficient strategies for resilience, I remained somewhat skeptical that the program would have any impact, but I had also reached a point where I felt like I had nothing else to lose in just trying. And so I tried. As I watched the DVDs, I witnessed something come back to me—In the midst of watching and absorbing the information in the videos, I was also doodling. Why is this important? It signaled my very first shift in rewiring my brain out of the survival state I was stuck in. Just think about it for a second—if you’re running from a tiger, are you going to just stop, whip out a pen, and sit down to sketch it? 🤣
But for me, it actually went so much deeper than that because I had originally built an identity around my ability to create art, and due to the challenges I was experiencing through limbic system impairment, I was unable to effectively connect to my creative self. That intuitively-led act of doodling was a flicker of connection back to the creative part of me.
During my studies in high school and college, doodling was also a helpful behavior I did to maintain academic excellence in the midst of a tumultuous time. It served to keep my overactive limbic system occupied while my prefrontal cortex was receiving and processing new information. It assisted me immensely with retention and recall. My lecture notes were of course filled with random drawings in the margins as a result, and perhaps my professors thought I was simply daydreaming during their lessons, but the reality was quite the opposite. When I would go back through my notes and see a doodle, I could recall exactly what the professor was talking about during the moment when I was doodling it. The doodle created a visual cue for my brain and also served as a means of occupying the rowdy toddler in my head (aka the Limbic system)—like a parent occupying a child with some crayons and paper—so that my prefrontal cortex could be more engaged and attentive.
Doodling also engages the brain in a way that is different from more technical drawing or art creation, because it is without the intention or pressure of creating any specific masterpiece. There isn’t a plan or sense of structure as that’s reserved for the prefrontal cortex primarily. Doodling is more spontaneous, fluid, and free. It’s like an intuitive form of drawing without any rules or limitations. It can be whatever you want it to be. I often find myself doodling flowers—any and all shapes, sizes, and formations just out of my own imagination. Flowers and brains were actually what I was drawing when I watched the DNRS DVDs, which I see the irony in now with my more recent creation of brain gardening. 🤣 Doodling could also be lines and abstract shapes. It doesn’t have to be anything realistic or representational. It can be simply the act of making a mark on a surface. You can doodle with your foot on the ground or with your finger on a misty window. This activity doesn't require any art supplies.
If starting with a blank surface seems too intimidating at first, working on a surface that already has something can be a good building point. One thing I remember sometimes doing as a child was to scribble on a piece of paper with my eyes closed and then look at the page to see what I could then transform that mark to become. Sometimes I would invent creatures or fun characters that simply began as just random marks. Coloring pages are a similar concept where you begin with a basic outline of something that you can then customize and expand into whatever you wish it to become.
Research shows that doodling and coloring have stress-relieving benefits and can facilitate a shift in mindset by changing your physical and neurological experience at that moment. One recent study in The Arts in Psychotherapy examined reward pathway activation during coloring, doodling, and free drawing (Kaimal, G. et al., 2017). “Participants reported more improvements in self-perceptions of creativity and problem-solving at the end of the three art-making conditions, indicating a simple way to enhance perceptions of creativity in individuals” (Kaimal, G. et al., 2017, p.91). Doodling most significantly evoked the brain's reward pathways out of the three art-making activities, and could be a way to regulate mood and addictive behaviors and/or serve as a mood-elevating activity (Kaimal, G. et al., 2017). The study also did not find any significant differences between people who consider themselves artists and those that do not, which also indicates the potential for everyone to experience positive shifts from visual self-expression regardless of skill level or talent (Kaimal, G. et al., 2017). “Furthermore, the fact that art can evoke reward pathways indicates that it could potentially be a replacement for other activities that are known to activate these pathways such as addictive behaviors, eating disorders, and mood disorders” (Kaimal, G. et al., 2017, p.90). The link to the full study is at the end of this entry if you're interested in reading more about the science behind doodling and its effect on the brain.
I invite you to incorporate doodling into your self-care practice or as a replacement for an unhelpful habit or behavior. If you have a goal to be more creative, more focused, or to incorporate more spontaneity or play into your life, I truly believe doodling to also be one of the tools that can help to rewire or strengthen those neural pathways.
Here is a doodle activity sheet plus a free coloring page I created to support you in getting started, but you can also completely disregard these suggestions and follow your own intuitive guidance instead. There are no rules or mistakes in doodling!
I would love to see what you come up with as you explore doodling. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can tag me on Instagram at @braingardening if you are inclined to also share your creation(s) with the rest of the rewiring community.
Remember, your brain is a garden and your thoughts are the seeds. Nourish the flowers and pluck out the weeds! 🧠🌱🌷
Kaimal, G., Ayaz, H., Herres, J., Dieterich-Hartwell, R., Makwana, B., Kaiser, D., & Nasser, J. (2017). Functional near-infrared spectroscopy assessment of reward perception based on visual self-expression: Coloring, doodling, and free drawing. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 55, 85-92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aip.2017.05.004
Alina Bachmann is an award-winning visual artist, certified level II Reiki practitioner, and creator of Brain Gardening™, a neuroplasticity module based on her own experience recovering from chronic illness. After a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), coupled with natural disasters, chemical injury, and toxic stress levels, Alina developed lifelong health and anxiety issues associated with a maladaptive stress response. Art was a beautiful buffer, but that outlet also became impacted by declining health. Through her program and publications, she hopes to inspire others in their own healing journeys. Whether people are experiencing similar health effects or feeling creative blocks and disconnect from their passions, Alina guides others to find peace and reconnect with their own intuitive wisdom that is uninhibited by fear.
Comment below if you spotted the chameleon in my bio picture! 😉 He's there as an added reminder of our amazing ability to also transform and change our brain!