This week my student noticed that she seemed to be seeing things differently since she started to draw. That is because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it’s a power you can use for good or evil. Only you control whether you make good choices, like art, or bad ones, like using drugs.
Before the invention of the camera, people in many different fields were expected to understand how to draw. The visual image was almost as important for communication as were words. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line,” or “I’m not talented.” Drawing was too important to leave to a few anointed geniuses.
That’s why I love this recent story in Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
As I noted Wednesday, kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Personally, I think art is how they process the amazing changes their young brains are experiencing. Why most kids quit drawing is not well-studied, but cultural factors play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
I always encourage people—and especially children—to carry sketchbooks around with them. Ten minutes in the doctor’s waiting room is far more productive when you surreptitiously draw the person across from you than when you leaf through last year’s People magazine.
I sketch in church because I’m someone who processes words better when my hands are busy. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit.
But try applying that principle to ADHD kids in school and you get into major trouble. My son needed the distraction of drawing when asked to sit for hours on end. His school absolutely forbade it. Letting him draw would break down discipline in the classroom. Their answer was drugs or a special school for troubled kids. As you can imagine, his school career was one long, unpleasant skirmish.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth. Now that he’s in college, where he is in charge of his own actions, he’s on the Honor Roll.
An art teacher friend of mine told me that the only time her kid ever got in trouble was for drawing in class. It was one of the issues that motivated her to move to another district. If she, a respected professional, couldn’t get the administration to understand the value of drawing, who could?
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Educators would do well to remember that.