Home » Creativity » A Neuroscientist Patiently Explains the Allure of the Adult Coloring Book

A Neuroscientist Patiently Explains the Allure of the Adult Coloring Book

15 January 2016

From Science of Us:

A few months ago, I caved: I bought myself a coloring book. And maybe you did, too, or perhaps you received one as a gift for the holidays. According to a recent Fortune article, adult coloring books are one of the biggest contributors to this year’s boost in print-book sales. With over 11,000 search results total, five of Amazon’s current top 15 best-sellingbooks are coloring books.

A few nights a week, I look forward to curling up on the couch with my ever-growing collection of colored pencils, tuning in to the latest episode of Serial, and scribbling away at mandalas and Harry Potters — but I still find the trend strange. I’ve always had a penchant for making new things from scratch — painting, knitting, writing, drawing, baking. But with my coloring book, I’m not really creating anything. The designs are already on the page — I’m just filling in the white spots. And yet the activity is just as soothing to my mind as my more traditionally “creative” hobbies. So what is the psychological draw of a task that feels creative, but doesn’t actually involve creating anything new?

. . . .

Whether you would consider yourself artistic or not, research points to the importance of incorporating a little bit of creativity in our daily lives. In one study, Yale researcher Zorana Ivcevic examined traits associated with “everyday creativity” – how we express ourselves in everyday situations, including our personal style and devising ways to cope with daily challenges. Those who ranked highly in having an overall “creative lifestyle” tended to be more conscientious, as well as more likely to seek out personal growth. Yet more new research has focused on how creativity, especially in the form of visual art, can improve physical health. In a study of 30 women with disabling chronic illness, those who had taken up art described the hobby as “cathartic,” distracting their thoughts away from their pain and promoting feelings of “flow and spontaneity.” Research also suggests that engaging patients with art can shorten the length of hospital stays by reducing stress and anxiety.

Of course, coloring within the lines compared to, say, painting a blank canvas is mostly simple decision-making — choosing which color goes best where, with relatively little skill involved. Our prefrontal cortex is responsible for coordinating thousands of decisions each day, from which socks we should wear to life-altering relationship and career choices. As an unconscious response to this so-called daily “decision fatigue,” making a series of small, inconsequential decisions (teal or mahogany for this squiggly line?) may give us a refreshing sense of self-control after a long day of big, important ones.

Link to the rest at Science of Us

PG knows he can’t feel his brain. However, when he turns from lawyer and blogging tasks involving words to photography, it seems as if he can feel a different part of his brain spinning up.


17 Comments to “A Neuroscientist Patiently Explains the Allure of the Adult Coloring Book”

  1. For the same reason I do puzzles, to let the hind-brain play while my eyes/hands are otherwise occupied …

    (wow, a 5 minute edit window came up this time! 😉 )

  2. My paintings frequently consist of series of the same basic composition in different colors. A very similar approach to coloring books, which I loved as a child. And I used my crayons in as many different ways as I could discover, mostly by varying pressure and layering different colors.

    There are more options to play with in a painting, but coloring in a book using someone else drawings is a way of purposely setting parameters and finding ways to be creative within those parameters. All artists do this. Coloring in a book takes the pressure off of making something “good”, as well. You can relax and play. Something artists have to learn to do in their own work.

    And I definitely identify with PG’s perception of what it feels like to make art.

  3. “Give me a break,” I told myself, “Adult coloring books?” Then I checked them on Amazon and couldn’t believe my eyes when the top coloring book was #2 of best sellers. And then the light clicked in my head. I am an artsy-fartsy artist and have tons of material, some associated with books I wrote, others are pure art. This is worth trying my hand at it. Who knows it may pay for a full breakfast, not just donuts and coffee.

  4. “In a study of 30 women with disabling chronic illness, those who had taken up art described the hobby as “cathartic,” distracting their thoughts away from their pain and promoting feelings of “flow and spontaneity.””

    I find it better to be writing, which has at least the potential of being something you can sell – there is a strong drive to work in many of us, and there are very few things a shut-in can do which might have economic value.

    And we have before us the example of women such as Flannery O’Connor, who wrote every day in spite of the lupus that killed her at 39.

    Maybe chronic illness makes you more aware of mortality and the fact that the sands of time are running out.

    • “Maybe chronic illness makes you more aware of mortality and the fact that the sands of time are running out.”

      Indeed. That’s wisdom.

      The older I get, the more I find that my old destressing habits just don’t do it for me anymore. I’ll give in for an hour or two, then feel like I’ve just wasted my time on something entirely useless. The things that used to entertain me do no longer. I find them poor uses for the minimal amount of time we have in this world. So fortunately, I am now making better use of my time than before.

      Adult coloring books are fun, and more often than not the finished result is visually satisfying. But I’d rather create the lineart than color it. That’s productive.

  5. Lots of adult coloring books seem to have a religious slant– either explicitly religious picture or being suggested as a form of prayer or meditation. I have a faint benign tremor so I never could stay within the lines even if I wanted to color.

    I do have a copy of Tee Corinne’s Classic Feminist coloring book– I won’t put the title here– but that is what I always thought of as an adult coloring book.

    Here’s the ASIN: B00824UU0G if you want to look it up on Amazon NSFW I guess.

  6. Not knocking this trend at all, but I just grab a kids coloring book and a pack of crayons. Who doesn’t get nostalgic when they smell crayons? mmmm, crayons.

  7. 1. it is a meditation technique for some
    [and allen f. said ‘hind brain etc’ which is another phrase for same]

    2. alpha brain wave cycles would be similar way of saying it; that limerent state that is ‘awake’ but has the merest calm of almost sleep. It is the same state one is in between sleeping and waking, and between waking and sleeping

    3. expressive art therapy has been a phenom since the late 1800s to the present [google it] when war vets, persons suffering injury, depression, anxiety, were encouraged to ‘meditate’ –ecven out their flurry of thoughts, their looping negative thoughts, by knitting, painting, coloring, weaving, etc. The rhythm of the work of the hands can calm the overfull or brain in a flurry. Breathing regularizes, the rest of the body systems can reset to a calmer one.

    4. wanting to create without having to worry about creating in terms of the primary form. Lots of people say speaking publicly makes their legs weak, I would say asking a person to sing in public or to draw [even drawing alone] is equal challenge to the nerves. Drawing especially, for making a drawing look like the image you are drawing, whether an actual landscape or from pure imagination, often even in the trained, does NOT match the picture. {nor actually need it] but people often are entrapped in early instruction that things have to ‘look like’ the thing they MEANT to draw.

    5. In all the above positives, you already know, neoepinephrine, seratonin and other calming and even slight ecstatic chemical

    • Best explanation. I have been colouring for years (Mandell a with markers). Using it to meditate. It was the only control I had at the time. I realized then what it meant. When my partner and I finally split I had more inner strength to control more of my life and make big decisions. It was an eye-opener for them.
      I don’t colour as much as I did back then….now I use it for the creativity and meditation. I have recruited a few friends along the way!!!

  8. of course I spelled most everything wrong in previous. Sorry. It’s not my forte though I’ve worked hard as heck at it. It’s like trying to get a poor dog who dont know how to sit, to sit, who aint never goin’ ta sit.

  9. “PG knows he can’t feel his brain. However, when he turns from lawyer and blogging tasks involving words to photography, it seems as if he can feel a different part of his brain spinning up.”

    This happens to me, too, except with words. When I’m writing a first draft and the story takes off with something that is definitely not in my outline, I feel the right side of my brain taking over.

    And, yes, I do have three coloring books, although I haven’t colored a whole lot of pictures yet. I enjoy doing it.

  10. For those of us with less than zero artistic talent (think of a multi-digit negative number), what coloring medium would you recommend starting with? Something inexpensive (in case I decide that even coloring books are beyond my skills) that will still provide a satisfying experience? Traditional crayons? Ink pens of some sort? Pencils? I’d love to try this (and have been dithering over favorite coloring books–mandalas and abstracts are not my thing; I’m looking at steampunk or historical fashions or fantasy stuff). What is cheap and easy for a beginner?

    • Windows has ‘Paint’ and there’s ‘Gimp’ out there for free. find a line drawing you like and ‘fill it in’.

      Can’t get much cheaper than that; and who knows, you might find something you like. 😉

    • I have always used permanent markers for those coloring books. It’s tedious, sometimes frustrating, but I enjoy stretching and exercising my patience. That’s why I color.

      But if you want pretty results that are more forgiving, try colored pencils. These coloring books definitely won’t be out of your skill bracket — if anything, it will teach your hand to be precise! And patience. Good luck.

  11. I’ve always loved to color or paint or something, but I have exactly zero talent in terms of drawing something that looks like the thing it’s supposed to be. Seriously, zero.

    Coloring books take all that pressure off and allow me to use a pattern already there.

    I currently have at least a dozen, and my marker, copic, pencil, watercolor pencil, and all other forms of marking devises is growing ridiculously. I just got myself the Prismacolor pencil set with all the colors (nice box!) and I went right back to crayola, so clearly I have no taste either. 🙂

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