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5 Ways Art Therapy Develops The Nervous System For Optimal Learning & Brain Function

Written by: Carey MacCarthy, MA, ATR, LPCC, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Carey MacCarthy, MA, ATR, LPCC

Start up! Art Therapy develops the nervous system as the foundational building block for optimal learning capacity.

Female students in painting class sitting on chairs

Art Therapy and its role in the healthy development of the nervous system plays a crucial role in learning. The nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord, is responsible for processing and transmitting information throughout the body. It is involved in various cognitive functions, including attention, memory, problem-solving, and decision-making, all of which are essential for learning.

Proper nervous system development is essential for optimal learning. As the brain develops, it becomes more efficient in processing information, coordinating complex tasks, and integrating sensory input. This development involves the growth of neural networks, the establishment of synaptic connections, and the myelination of axons, which enhances the speed of electrical impulses.

Here are 5 ways ART develops the nervous system, which influences learning

1. Neuronal Connections: During development, the nervous system undergoes a process called synaptogenesis, where neurons form connections with each other. These connections, known as synapses, enable the transmission of electrical and chemical signals between neurons crucial for the establishment of neural circuits that underlie learning and memory processes. Using directed Art Therapy activities which correspond to the different parts of the brain promotes the strengthening and building of new neural networks.

2. Plasticity: The nervous system exhibits a high degree of plasticity during early development. Neural plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change and reorganize its structure and function in response to experiences and environmental stimuli. Art Therapy facilitates self-directed neuroplastic changes through the use of image and the power of conscious thought, thus changing the brain’s plasticity; allowing the nervous system to adapt and optimize its neural circuits based on the image and emotional states elicited during the Art Therapy session. Art and imagery enables the brain to create new connections, strengthen existing ones, and eliminate unnecessary connections, thereby facilitating learning and skill acquisition.

3. Sensory and Motor Integration: Learning often involves the integration of sensory information and motor responses. The nervous system plays a vital role in this integration process. As sensory information is received by the brain, it is processed and integrated with existing knowledge and memories. Art stimulates the five senses: visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic, and olfactory, resulting in motor responses coordinated through the nervous system, allowing individuals to learn and perform new skills or behaviors.

4. Attention and Focus: The nervous system also regulates attention and focus, which are critical for effective learning and retaining information. Specific and scientifically designed Art Therapy techniques can facilitate the communication between both hemispheres of the brain, promoting the regulation of the nervous system, as well as the emotional/perceptual centers of the brain.

5. Memory Formation: Learning is closely linked to memory formation, and the nervous system plays a central role in this process. The brain's hippocampus, is involved in the formation and consolidation of different types of memory, which can be compromised in the event of trauma. Art Therapy plays a crucial role in regulating the nervous system in order to develop or repair these memory systems essential for acquiring and retaining knowledge over time.

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes creative processes and artistic expression to improve mental, emotional, and physical well-being. BUT…START UP! Art Therapy Whole Brain Healing System™ promotes physical, emotional & cognitive homeostasis, as well as joy and creativity.

The START UP! Art Therapy WHOLE BRAIN Healing System utilizes our propriety scientifically designed Art Therapy directives to engage the four functioning structures of the brain, from lowest functioning to highest functioning structures, which develop perception, motor coordination, memory, and emotion. Through art, individuals can explore and express their thoughts, emotions, and experiences, and improve verbal communication as the START UP! Art Therapy system engages left/right brain integration allowing bi-lateral communication within both sides of the brain. Art therapy provides a verbal/nonverbal outlet for self-expression and can help individuals develop self-awareness, emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, and improved self-esteem, as well access the executive functioning structure of the brain for planning, decision-making, understanding right/wrong, wisdom, compassion, empathy and joy.

Start up! Art therapy as the foundational building block for optimal learning

As the nervous system develops and matures, individuals develop memory retention in order to learn academics such as math, science, English, and language (especially crucial for Indigenous language . Furthermore, the brain's plasticity allows for ongoing neural changes and adaptations, enabling individuals to continually gain access to the executive functioning part of the brain, as well as refine their artistic abilities and explore new creative possibilities.

Understanding the importance of nervous system development can help inform educational practices and interventions aimed at optimizing learning outcomes in individuals of all ages.

This is why I developed the START UP! Art Therapy Classroom curriculum putting mental health within the K-12 classroom for optimal brain function and learning, giving every child the healthy Start they need to Succeed!

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Carey MacCarthy, MA, ATR, LPCC Brainz Magazine

Carey MacCarthy, MA, ATR, LPCC, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Carey MacCarthy, MA, ATR, LPCC, is a recognized trauma expert, and registered Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, presenter, researcher, and author. In the Art Therapy field since 2001, she has trained mental health professionals, coaches, and educators, and has healed thousands of patients from diverse populations, specializing in child and adolescent trauma, and Intergenerational and Historical trauma with Native Americans. She is the co-author of START UP! A School-Based Arts Curriculum for Native American Youth and ALL Cultures: Interventions for Development and Learning (2017).


Internal links

START UP! Art Therapy Research Studies

START UP! Art Therapy Services

External links

American art therapy association



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