• Robb G. Best

Give Your Brain a Treat: Grab a Coloring Book

Can’t get into meditation? It might be time to pick up a coloring book.

That’s not meant to sound dismissive; it’s actual advice. Adult coloring books arrived on the market in a big way circa 2012, and as CNN reports, it’s now a full-blown trend, for some very interesting reasons. It’s not art therapy in the traditional sense—filling in pre-drawn shapes isn’t quite the same as a freeform painting exercise, for instance—but coloring demonstrates similar benefits all the same. Research from the American Art Therapy Association shows adults who crack open a coloring book report feeling less stress, more confidence, and an increased sense of serenity.

Recent research by psychologist Dr Nicola Holt and her team at the University of the West of England backs this up. In one experiment, 47 freshman undergrads read a chapter on study skills and colored a mandala. They took psychological tests at the start and following each activity. After just 20 minutes of coloring, the students reported significantly greater contentment, energy, and calm.

The second experiment repeated the two activities with 51 students, but with different psychological tests. This time, not only were the students calmer, they also displayed more creative thinking and better visual attention. Of course, the UWE Bristol studies only concerned a very small data set, which also happened to be primarily female. Dr. Holt herself acknowledged that “It would be good to see [the results] replicated by other researchers, but they do suggest that colouring could be an effective way of reducing stress and improving cognitive performance in students.”

The secret is mindfulness. When you commit your conscious attention to filling in those shapes, keeping the color even, and staying inside the lines, you are diverting your brain from other thoughts and worries, and more fully living in the moment. The precise, repetitive task is also a prime candidate for a flow state.

Some assisted living facilities even offer coloring as an organized activity for seniors. At the website for the Poet’s Walk memory care facilities, there’s an entire page dedicated to ways the staff has witnessed coloring make a difference for the elderly, including increased positive thinking, increased concentration and focus, improved dexterity, and decreased stress and anxiety—all crucial for a population facing big life transitions and the onset of dementia. While most of the Greatest Generation might scoff at yoga mats or lotus positions, coloring is simple, familiar, and nostalgic.

From college freshmen to senior citizens, the benefits are clear. So if you balk at trying to sit and clear your mind, maybe it’s time to sit and fill some shapes instead.

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