Are you into colouring books? If you are, you’re not alone. Right now, and in fact for all of 2015, a quarter of the best-selling books on Amazon were colouring books. Adult colouring books. It’s an international craze that doesn’t show any sign of slowing. But is there any evidence for their touted health benefits? Will you be any calmer, less anxious or more focused if you spend time colouring-in?
Staying within the lines
Can you remember entering colouring competitions when you were a kid? I can. I went to great lengths to stay inside the lines and choose my colour combinations carefully. But the stakes were pretty low. After all, someone else had already done the hard work and drawn the picture for me. All I had to do was colour it in.
Which is one of the main arguments as to why so many of us have embraced the colouring-in phenomenon as adults. Colouring is creativity without any pressure. You don’t have to start with a daunting blank piece of paper, yet you end up with a pleasing piece of artwork. It’s like ‘art with training wheels’. It’s challenging enough that it’s not boring but few people would claim colouring in is difficult.
Art for health
We’ve long known art therapy works. Creating art helps those trying to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis, and alleviates distress during cancer treatment. Art has also been shown to help sufferers of dementia express themselves and was already being used 30 years ago to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam Veterans.
Art therapists are quick to point out colouring in isn’t the same as specialised art therapy but that doesn’t mean colouring can’t be therapeutic. There may be good reasons why colouring has become the latest golden child of the mindfulness movement.
Dr Stan Rodski, a neuropsychologist and neuroscientist (who also happens to have a range of adult colouring books on the market), says colouring changes our brain waves. According to Dr Rodski, there are three key characteristics of colouring contributing to its therapeutic effects: repetition, pattern and detail.
In the process of looking at the size and shape of the area to colour, examining the edges of the space and picking a colour to use, your brain is occupied. In particular, the part of your brain, which might otherwise be involved in you feeling anxious or stressed, is focused on something entirely different. The parts of the brain that might otherwise be contributing to you feeling bad are preoccupied with colour, shape and pattern.
One study compared people colouring squares, mandalas or colouring on a blank piece of paper after they were made to feel anxious. Those colouring free-form experienced no relief from anxiety whereas both groups who were provided with outlines to colour were significantly less anxious after spending 20 minutes colouring their designs.
At the end of the day, colouring is a calm, repetitive and extremely focused way to spend your time. It doesn’t seem too big a stretch to suggest colouring is essentially a form of meditation. And herein lies the main argument as to why colouring is so therapeutic.
Colouring as meditation
Scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation is mounting all the time. In one study, the brains of people who spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises changed. Compared with non-meditators over the same period, meditators had increases in the brain’s grey matter (a part of the nervous system associated with processing information) in the hippocampus, which plays an important role in learning and memory. There were also changes in structures associated with our ability to be self-aware and compassionate. Grey matter also changed in the amygdala, a part of the brain involved with managing stress and anxiety.
A review of many of the studies looking at how our brains change in response to meditation found consistent changes in the brains of meditators in areas associated with memory, emotion and self-regulation, body awareness, pain tolerance and complex thinking. Meditation has also been shown to increase our capacity for paying attention and for feeling empathy.
Colouring can serve as a mindfulness activity for those of us who struggle to meditate regularly and even if colouring only provides some of the benefits of an established meditation practice, there is still a lot to be gained.
To knit or to colour
You may be thinking ‘Yes, but my meditation is knitting / crocheting / cross-stitching.’ And that may well be true. What then explains the extraordinary popularity of colouring books for adults? Most likely the fact colouring can be done anywhere, anytime, very cheaply, and many people say they feel the benefits immediately. You don’t need to learn how to cast-on or cast-off stitches and there is less pressure to produce a creative masterpiece.
Which probably explains why some of Australia’s biggest companies have started providing their staff with colouring books and pencils. There have also been suggestions that every doctor’s waiting room in the country should be equipped with colouring materials. I, for one, would rather colour than look at the latest women’s magazines.