By Dr David Pearson
One of the themes explored in the recent ACUADS/DDCA conference was how best to connect arts education and research to STEM education and economic recovery in a post-pandemic world. From my own discipline of cognitive psychology there is considerable evidence that scientific and artistic creativity can be viewed as manifestations of the same underlying cognitive systems in the brain [1, 2]. A number of studies have demonstrated that the addition of arts-based practices such as drawing to STEM education can significantly enhance and develop scientific learning and reasoning processes in students [3 – 5]. However, others have recently cautioned against arts education becoming just a “cognitive enhancer” for STEM subjects .
It remains important that the wider benefits of arts training and education on positive cognitive development and personal wellbeing are also recognised and promoted. Some of my own research has focused on how visual and spatial cognitive systems in the brain can be developed through the application of arts and design training. In a study conducted at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture  we compared performance on an experimental visual creativity task between final year architecture students and a control sample. We found that architecture students produced patterns with a higher level of “transformational complexity” (a measure of the number of mental transformations necessary to produce a creative pattern) in comparison to students with no formal training in drawing or visual thinking.
A similar study conducted by Pérez-Fabello and Campos  compared the performance of first and final year fine art students on various cognitive measures of mental imagery, the transformation of spatial relations, and visual memory. They found those students who had undertaken the longer period of artistic training performed significantly better on all performance measures than first year students. More recently Drake et al. has found art and design students perform significantly better on cognitive measures of mental imagery vividness and visual abstraction in comparison to non-arts students . One potential mechanism for such effects is that arts education and training can help develop aspects of creative cognition such as working memory capacity  or the cognitive ability to mentally represent complex forms and dynamically animate them .
Arts training that develops visuo-spatial thinking, particularly in terms of mental visualisation and manipulation, may provide broader benefits than simply cognitive enhancement. Mental imagery ability has been shown to positively correlate with personal ratings of wellbeing  and also optimism , improved mood  and decreased dysfunctional attitudes . The impact of visual arts training on both cognitive skills and general wellbeing may be particularly evident for younger age groups. For example, early work by Speidel and Pickens conducted in the seventies found that participation in clay shaping activities significantly increased elementary children’s performance on measures of logical and creative thinking in comparison to controls .
Any enhancement of mental imagery ability by arts education can be mediated by the sensory-perceptual systems engaged by different types of expertise. Bensafi et al explored the impact of training in culinary arts and music on mental imagery ability  and found that cooks were faster at imagining fruit odours and musicians were faster at imagining the timbre of musical instruments in comparison to controls. A study by Pérez-Fabello and colleagues reported significant differences on measures of object and spatial visualisation when comparing groups of engineering, psychology, and fine arts students . Using an experience-sampling method Holt found that recent art-making activities not only improved positive mood, but were also associated with increased vivid internal mental imagery and inner dialogue .
Overall, the existing research literature provides evidence that arts education and training can deliver broad benefits for people’s overall cognitive development and general wellbeing. Creative cognition processes, and in particular those associated with visualisation and visuo-spatial thinking, can be enhanced in a manner that deliver benefits beyond the specific context of STEM-based education.
 Pearson, D.G. (2007). Mental imagery and creative thought. In I. Roth (Ed), Imaginative Minds (pp. 187-212). British Academy / Oxford University Press, UK.
 Pearson, D.G. (in press). Mental imagery and creative cognition. In In F. Vallee-Tourangeau & L. Ball (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Creative Cognition, Routledge, UK.
 Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Russell, T. (2011). Drawing to Learn in Science. Science, 333(6046), 1096-1097.
 Gurnon D., Voss-Andreae, J., Stanley, J. (2013) Integrating Art and Science in Undergraduate Education. PLoS Biol 11(2): e1001491. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001491
 Thinking through Drawing. https://www.thinkingthroughdrawing.org/
 Graham, M. A. (2021). The disciplinary borderlands of education: art and STEAM education. Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 44(4), 1-31.
 Pearson, D.G., Alexander, A., & Webster, R. (2001). Working memory and expertise differences in design. In J. Gero, B. Tversky, & T. Purcell (Eds.), Visual and Spatial Reasoning in Design II. Sydney: Key Centre of Design Computing and Cognition.
 Pérez-Fabello, M. J., & Campos, A. (2007). Influence of training in artistic skills on mental imaging capacity. Creativity Research Journal, 19(2-3), 227-232.
 Drake, J. E., Simmons, S., Rouser, S., Poloes, I., & Winner, E. (2021). Artists Excel on Image Activation But Not Image Manipulation Tasks. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 39(1), 3-16.
 Haugland, M. D., Pearson, D. G., & Ekroll, V. (2021). Möbius band surprise: A systematic illusion in imagery. i-Perception, 12(2), 20416695211004972.
 Odou, N., & Vella-Brodrick, D. A. (2013). The efficacy of positive psychology interventions to increase well-being and the role of mental imagery ability. Social Indicators Research, 110(1), 111-129.
 Blackwell, S. E., Rius-Ottenheim, N., Schulte-van Maaren, Y. W., Carlier, I. V., Middelkoop, V. D., Zitman, F. G., … & Giltay, E. J. (2013). Optimism and mental imagery: A possible cognitive marker to promote well-being? Psychiatry Research, 206(1), 56-61.
 Murphy, S. E., O’Donoghue, M. C., Drazich, E. H., Blackwell, S. E., Nobre, A. C., & Holmes, E. A. (2015). Imagining a brighter future: The effect of positive imagery training on mood, prospective mental imagery and emotional bias in older adults. Psychiatry research, 230(1), 36-43.
 Renner, F., Schwarz, P., Peters, M. L., & Huibers, M. J. (2014). Effects of a best-possible-self mental imagery exercise on mood and dysfunctional attitudes. Psychiatry research, 215(1), 105-110.
 Pickens, A. L., & Speidel, G. (1979). Art, Mental Imagery, and Cognition. In A. Sheikh and J. T. Shaffer (Eds.), The Potential of Fantasy and Imagination (pp. 199-213). New York: Brandon House.
 Bensafi, M., Fournel, A., Joussain, P., Poncelet, J., Przybylski, L., Rouby, C., & Tillmann, B. (2017). Expertise shapes domain‐specific functional cerebral asymmetry during mental imagery: The case of culinary arts and music. European Journal of Neuroscience, 45(12), 1524-1537.
 Pérez-Fabello, M. J., Campos, A., & Felisberti, F. M. (2018). Object-spatial imagery in fine arts, psychology, and engineering. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 27, 131-138.
 Holt, N. J. (2018). Using the experience-sampling method to examine the psychological mechanisms by which participatory art improves wellbeing. Perspectives in public health, 138(1), 55-65.
David Pearson is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. He is an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Chartered Psychologist, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has published widely in the fields of creativity, memory, and visuo-spatial cognition, and is co-editor of Mental Imagery in Clinical Disorders (2017, Frontiers Media). His TEDx talk “Why Do We Draw?” is available to view at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9cUwVdw_wo