Improve your brain health by learning to paint

I’ve recently been stepping out of my comfort zone to paint in different styles and in different mediums that are new to me. 


It’s something I’ve felt I’ve needed to do, and it’s been very rewarding. The thrill of expanding my skills and, after some trial and error and ‘mistakes’, getting a result I’ve been happy with has been really satisfying and empowering.

And now I’ve been reading that it’s not just fun. 


Pushing yourself to learn new skills like this is a form of ‘good stress’ that can also improve your brain health.


By growing new neural pathways, the act of learning keeps our brains ‘plastic’. This in turn builds our capacity to adapt and cope with the challenges of life, activates our curiosity and creativity and may even protect us from developing forms of dementia as we age. 


If you think of the brain as being like a muscle, then learning new things is like flexing that muscle and causing it to grow.

I’ve learned about this in the book ‘How to Stay Sane’ by psychotherapist Phillipa Perry.  If you’re wondering what brought me to pick up a book with that title, it was because we are currently in the process of moving house (4th time in 6 years) and I felt I needed a little help! That story I’ll share in another post soon…


Positive Stress & brain reserve


In the book Perry describes learning a new skill as providing the brain with a good kind of ‘positive stress’. 


As opposed to the kind of stress that overwhelms us and causes us to panic, ‘positive stress’: 


‘promotes the neural growth hormones that support learning. Good stress…can be experienced as pleasurable; it can motivate us or make us curious. More importantly, it triggers neuro plasticity’


If we’re well practised at growing new neural connections, we can be described as having good ‘brain reserve’. 


And it turns out that you can improve your brain health by actively taking steps to grow your brain reserve.


What ‘brain reserve’ and the nun experiment shows us about dementia symptoms.


Right now one in nine Americans (10.7%) aged over 65 has Alzheimer’s. The figures are similar in the UK and Europe. This is truly a health crisis as our populations age.


We all know families touched by this cruel disease, and if your own has been touched by it my heart goes out to you. 


Which is why I also wanted to share what Perry writes about how learning can help protect us from developing the symptoms of dementia. She cites another book I’ve subsequently gone on to read and highly recommend: Ageing with Grace: the nun study and the science of old age by David Snowdon.

In the ‘nun study’ David Snowdon, one of the world’s leading experts on Alzheimer’s disease, and his team of researchers, conducted a long term study of 678 nuns aged from 75 to 106, all of whom agreed to donate their brains for research after they died. In terms of exercise levels, diet, routine and financial circumstances the nuns’ lives were the same. But they discovered that the more the nuns stayed engaged with learning, socialising and embarking upon and maintaining new interests, the fewer symptoms of Altzeimer’s they showed. 


This was despite the fact that, after their deaths, many of those nuns who showed no dementia symptoms were found to have had signs of significant damage in their brains as the result of Alzheimer’s. 


Their research led them to propose that the nuns who had continued to learn had built ‘brain reserve’ and their brains were better able to cope with the damage caused by Alzheimer’s by making new neural connections and finding new routes around the damage: ‘in a sense patching around the damage caused by Alzeimers’.


Whilst the research is not conclusive, circumstantial evidence seems to suggest a link between continued learning and curiosity and building brain reserve.

Learning a new art skill grows brain reserve


Learning to paint or draw (or like me, to do so in new ways) provides great ‘positive stress’ because it requires the brain to work in different ways to how it does in the normal day-to-day. The parts of the brain that handle shapes & colour as well as hand-eye coordination & taking in the ‘whole’ get a serious work-out.  


So if you’re even a little bit interested in learning to paint, why not do this to improve your brain health as well as for your pleasure.


DECIDE to do this for yourself and MAKE yourself follow through.


You think ‘Yes, I’d really like to try this. I’ve been meaning to for years.’  


But then another part of you pipes up with some anxiety and some reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t bother. 

This is to be expected. Resistance to learning something new goes with the territory.


As Perry writes:


It is often the case when we are embarking on a new activity (be it ballroom dancing, meditation or other new ventures) that we feel in two minds about it. However if we decide to override that part of us that is reluctant to change (instead of merely trying to override it) and undertake a new regime anyway, we give ourselves the chance to experience the difference that the new regime makes to us. If we are not feeling more stimulated, more interconnected, more alive, no harm will have been done and we will drop it. Starting a new habit means feeling the impulse to maintain your current way of being, but beginning the new regime anyway: it can feel like a wrench. We usually start sending ourselves messages – like ‘this isn’t really me’ – clock such excuses and decide to persevere with establishing a new habit anyway.


I know from my work with those who long to make art but have put it off for years that often there is some old ‘shame’ linked to it. 


Often there’s an ‘art scar’ lurking in their past – usually resulting from a time when a teacher or a parent criticised their art when they were young. And this stays with them, inhibiting them from giving it a go again. 


OR they suffer from an attitude to learning that we can pick up in adulthood: that we want our results to be great from the very point when we start, and we feel shame and self-consciousness when those results fall short of what we’re wanting to see. It’s as if we feel we SHOULD be good at this already, even though we’ve not given ourselves the chance to learn.


Again, Perry speaks directly to this: 


When I talk about the benefits of learning, sometimes people confide in me that what stops them embarking on learning something is a sense of shame that they do not know it already. Susan Jeffers wisely said ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.’ I say ‘Feel the shame and learn something anyway.’ No one likes to feel vulnerable but unless we learn to tolerate some emotional vulnerability we will be endangering our growth, and if we do not grow we shrink – and if we do that we jeopardize our sanity.’


Let this be a year when you grow and don’t shrink. 


You deserve it. 


I’m rooting for you. 


Isn’t it empowering to know that you can improve your brain health by doing something fun and rewarding? Please let me know in the comments if this has motivated you to start to learn something new or if you’ve a story about dementia you’d like to share. I know so many of us have one or more. 



How to Stay Sane by Phillipa Perry
Ageing with Grace: the nun study and the science of old age by David Snowdon.
Figures on Alzeimers in the US: See the Alzeimers Association

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  1. Sue on December 27, 2023 at 4:09 pm

    very positive and encouraging information, thanks

    • Virginia Griese on December 27, 2023 at 9:51 pm

      Thank you for this blog . I will be reading the books you mention. I also believe that introducing change is helpful for the brain. Years ago it was suggested to brush your teeth with the non dominant hand. I think that idea has been expanded. I have been drawing without tracing and picking up my guitar again. Both are a real challenge to me will it help ? Who knows but it’s also fun and I definitely don’t have to share it!
      Thank you for taking the time to do this blog

      • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:32 am

        good for you Virginia. My 6 year old son is learning the keyboard/piano and it’s so inspiring to see him do it, I’m working up to taking on a new challenge like that.

        • Eileen Harris on February 12, 2024 at 10:32 am

          Thank you Anna for this blog. So interested to read about painters block and it suddenly made sense to me. I haven’t been able to pick up my paint brush for so long. When I did paint the minute it got to the ugly duckling stage I put it to one side. I have so many started projects. I now know it’s because I am frighted of failure. I think I should already know how to do it and be good at it without learning. So instead of enjoying the journey of starting I’ve failed before I’ve begun. I am off to make that first step and try to enjoy being me.
          Thank you Anna as always, Eileen Harris

    • Debbie Robbins on December 30, 2023 at 7:41 pm

      This is such an interesting and inspiring article…..we all know what we should be doing for our brains but need constant reminders. I’m terrified of dementia ….. .. I must try to fit painting in to my daily or at least every other daily – routine . Thankyou Anna – the bit about the Nun’s study was fascinating

  2. Fran on December 27, 2023 at 4:36 pm

    Loved this blog, Anna. Yes, I took care of my father-in-law who suffered from Alzeimers for 7 years. Last year my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. So far, no symptoms of cognitive decline, but it is an evil specter hanging over our heads. I plan to get both those books, thanks for mentioning them. I am 78, and have found through the years, that when I am stressed and overwhelmed, the best thing for me is to start a new and exciting project. When I had pneumonia about 9 years ago, I taught myself to knit. When my husband had to get a pacemaker, I learned calligraphy, when covid hit, I found you. So I am a true believer in the creative arts saving sanity. I have always sew and took up beading, weaving, and many more creative pursuits, all as stress relief. Learning new and exciting things not only keeps you sane, but I think keeps you eagerly looking forward to what the next day can bring, thus improving the quality and quantity of life. So again, thanks for sharing this. I sometimes wondered if I should stick with one thing to get “good” at it…but seems like those studies stress learning new things. So that makes me Happy. So here is to a new year of learning new things and staying mentally excited.

    • Pavlina on December 27, 2023 at 6:12 pm

      Thank you, Fran, for sharing your story; it’s so inspiring! I am joining you with cheers “to a new year of learning new things and staying mentally excited!”

      • Sharon on December 28, 2023 at 2:40 am

        Thank you Anna for this post. I started watercolors this past Spring and love the learning process but don’t always love the results!! However I refuse to be discouraged and reading your post was the inspiration I needed to hear to keep me motivated. Thank you!

    • Susan Hall on December 27, 2023 at 10:35 pm

      I have to say you have nailed it Fran. Thanks to Annas tutorials over the years I have managed to keep an amyloid condition at bay and my neurologist cant explain. I am 78 and keep myself going by exploring several new art forms as well as water colour with Anna. I insist that I manage gardening and mowing lawns as well as my dog , hens and a menagerie of wild birds which now call my place home. I had a new hip and knee and found the body reminding me of my limitations. In order to make sure I paint, i have allocated every Monday afternoon for art and I invite others to pop in and paint or sculpt with me. Thanks Anna for your support over the many years.

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:33 am

      I couldn’t agree more Fran. We all need to be doing things that help us get that spark of excitement for what the next day will bring. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Carol Badman on December 27, 2023 at 5:06 pm

    I use my art to have some ‘my time’ while looking after my husband who has advancing dementia when he demands much of my attention/ time. Since joining Nature Studio 18 months ago I myself have found huge benefit to my mental health.
    I learned to paint from absolute beginner with Anna’s tutorials . . I am proud of my progress but now need a New Year challenge!

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:34 am

      So pleased your membership has been helpful at such a hard time for you Carol. We have some ideas for new year challenges coming up!

  4. Tjaard Heikens on December 27, 2023 at 5:14 pm

    Hello Anna,
    Thank you for your message about keep on learning. I recognize what you write.
    In November I turned 72 years old. From 2016 I paint as much as possible. Until two years ago, I painted with oils. That’s when I started working with pastels. It was quite a learning process. And very inspiring to do.
    A year ago I joined your school to paint with watercolors. And I like that very much.
    My goal for the next years is to work with all three. And to work with a ‘beginner’s mind’ again and again.
    By the way, my wife and I have been dancing for 15 years. And that is also a continuous learning process.

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:35 am

      The ‘beginners’ mind approach is so important. That’s fabulous that you dance. That would be a serious challenge for me as I have 2 left feet. But now I KNOW I need to give it a go (perhaps when my kids are a little older as there’s only so much time).

  5. Apps on December 27, 2023 at 5:25 pm

    Thank you Anna for reaching out. Yes indeed! I have slacked off on watercolors but am keeping my brain health going by trying a new medium- colored pencils. It does take as much precision as your wonderful amazing painting techniques you teach us in the courses. Hopefully the new year brings lots of changes and enthusiasm to me so I can get motivated and keep going on this wonderful art. It’s one thing for sure- I’m not going to give up watercolor painting! It’s just that I’m stumbling on things to get it going. Thank you for all the inspiration you provide. It makes a huge difference in one’s approach to do anything – in life in general also.
    Happy New Year

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:36 am

      Thanks Apps. I also have some Line & Wash style tutorials that are less precise and combine coloured pencil and watercolour coming out – so you may enjoy those too.

  6. Esther wintringham on December 27, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    I haven’t forgotten you Anna. Thanks for all your emails to me. I have actually just started doing what you have suggested in the above – I am just starting to learn new mediums in painting. I love your pictures from Nature Studio but feel I need to increase my skill levels with other mediums so that is what I am doing now. Once I had e exhausted my present dreams I may well join N S. it is never far from my thoughts but don’t hold your breath as it won’t be tomorrow.

    Happy New Year and happy moving (again!,)

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:38 am

      You’ll always be welcome Esther and later this year I’ll also be offering acrylics classes in Nature Studio. There are also drawing classes and courses there too now.

  7. Manon on December 27, 2023 at 5:47 pm

    My mother has Alzheimer and it’s so difficult to deal with that. I talked with my doctor because I want to be tested to make sure I start medication before it’s too late (like my mom). He suggested we wait until June because I just lost my father and I’m dealing with the succession, so lots of stress. My mom was an amazing painter, both with oils and watercolours. She has forgotten how to paint and that makes me so sad. I inherited a bit of her talent and I hope I’ll never forget how to paint.

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:39 am

      Oh Manon, what a hard time you’re going through. I wish you lots of love and have my fingers crossed that you have been lucky genetically and that you can get some peace of mind from that test. Keep creating!

  8. Joy Theda Bjork on December 27, 2023 at 5:54 pm

    my younger sister by 1.5 years has beginning of dementia. I am 75…. The Lord has been gently pushing me out of my comfort zone the past 3 years… your email was another “in your face” reminder of this!. presently I’m preparing to show my art at a FORMEX expo. I will be a little fish in a big pond…. and have been quaking in my boots. but I’m to the point now that I need to move forward because my art has life and joy that people need! it will be a huge learning experience. Years from now I will look back and ask “what was i afraid of?” I AM good enough because no one can create like I do….we each have a style of our own to tell our story to a world that needs joy and peace….amen….thank you Anna!

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:40 am

      Sounds like you have a great attitude Joy – and congratulations and good luck with this new exhibition.

  9. Tammy Haman on December 27, 2023 at 5:59 pm

    Such an inspiring post! My mom has Alzheimer’s and in November we just put her in a memory care facility. She has no other health issues! She thinks she’s there to help others who are in wheelchairs or other physical barriers. I will also be looking at the books you recommended because this is something I hope I don’t inherit. Thanks for discussing this topic! Happy new year!

  10. ImDiane on December 27, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    I love the detailed, precise watercolor painting I’ve learned through Anna’s teaching. But I started feeling the need to paint something different from flowers, birds, and critters. I watched quite a few line and wash demos and tutorials. I’ve painted several and it’s given me a new lease on my watercolor.
    Now to hear that learning a new skill has such good advantages for brain health has reinforced my interest in trying all kinds of painting and sketching.

    Thank you for branching out in providing tutoring in lots of different subjects and styles!
    I’m 76, by the way and only started drawing 6 years ago and painting 4 years ago.

  11. Ida Wijffelaars on December 27, 2023 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you for your wise and very interesting councils. Since 3 years I started to learn aquarel painting because it is an art I never had practiced. Almost my whole life I had sung in the choir, which helped me to overcome serious psychological problems, and to conserve my natural positive nature. Due to Covid, my age and quality of my voice, I decided to go to a painting Academy, in this Spanish village, where I started with only a little drawing knowledge. A new world opened itself to me and new wonders I see happen in my long life of 87 years, starting again each new day. Happy New Year to you all.

  12. Joyce on December 27, 2023 at 6:32 pm

    Great post. Makes me want to go to my art room right now and look for an art project that I put aside for ‘someday’ and get it started. Our local arts council has occasional free art workshops in the spring and summer so when one comes up even if I don’t think I’ll be that interested, I’m going!

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:41 am

      Go for it Joyce!

  13. JoNell Costello on December 27, 2023 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement. I need to get back to my water color lessons. This year has been bad. I had surgery in January, got an infection under my incision and developed sepsis. I was hospitalized for 4 days on multiple strong antibiotics. A few months later got a few more infections, then Covid. I am fortunately now back to pretty good health, so plan to start the lessons soon. Happy painting and Happy New Year.

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:42 am

      Wishing you a healthy and creative 2024 JoNell.

  14. Dee Roe on December 27, 2023 at 8:40 pm

    My mom had memory problems as well in her later years, but she continued getting joy and interest in her art even then. People used to come to her room in the Assisted Living
    facility to look at her paintings that she put up all over her walls. That’s when I started painting; we would paint together almost everyday!

    • Anna Mason on January 4, 2024 at 7:42 am

      That’s lovely to hear Dee!

  15. Donna Wilson on December 27, 2023 at 9:59 pm

    Thank-you for sharing the article. It is very inspiring. I keep reminding myself that every painting has an ugly stage. Getting organized and ready to start you courses in the new year!

  16. LadyCinnamon on December 27, 2023 at 10:20 pm

    What a timely and accurate post this is, Anna. Thank you so much for motivating us to get out there and take up something new. I’m way behind in your classes, but am staying with them. Am also learning Italian and hope to get back to playing piano and guitar. There is always something new and interesting to learn or get involved in, and that is one huge factor in staying “young.” I’m 78 and move slower now with arthritis, but am always looking for new things to try.

  17. Caroline Pomahac on December 27, 2023 at 11:34 pm

    What a perfect time of year for this blog – a time for new beginnings. Thank you Anna.
    Having cared for both parents who had dementia (fortunately not at the same time), I’m very cognisant about taking care of our brain health. Learning something new or perhaps just a different approach to something we love is so helpful. I loved the comment about brushing our teeth with our non-dominant hand. For me persononally I paint when I can and I’m determined to be more consistant in 2024. Your weekly e-mails are great at motivating me. I also meet with friends three times a week to exercise (Zumba and Bollywood followed by stretching) Since we’re all in our 60’s and 70’s it usually leaves us in stitches. I think the social interaction and laughter is as important as the exercise. Let’s put this horrible disease in it’s place.

  18. Tejinder Kaur on December 28, 2023 at 5:35 am

    Thank you Anna for this post.I joined Nature Studio in Nov this year and having fun painting the course tutorials.As a challenge for myself,I’m painting the orange practice flower from the pumpkin tutorial which just has the photo without the tutorial.Want to be a good drawing artist too hopefully sometime soon.l learnt that drawing with the left hand for a right handed person and vice versa is a very good drawing exercise so practicing that too these days.

  19. Bob on December 28, 2023 at 6:04 am

    I draw and paint a bit, but resist a lot. I’ll try to reverse the equation. Your comments are interesting and encouraging, and certainly challenge my sense of ultimate futility. Hope this isn’t a downer for anyone.

  20. Joy Mullin on December 28, 2023 at 10:13 am

    Thank you for this Anna. I’ve been dabbling in water colour for 4 or 5 months, so very much still a beginner, and yesterday I delved into your free lily sketch and pear painting. I can’t even begin to describe what a beautiful day I had. I could almost feel my brain stretching as I kept going and told myself, “You can do this. ” Hubby and I have shared the same hobby for many years, photography, and have grown together and both loved it. However, recently I became very overwhelmed with the technical aspects and I found myself becoming very anxious. That’s when I found a basic water colour course to get me going and even though I’m taking baby steps, the joy of producing original Christmas cards for friends and family was immeasurable. Thank you for the freebies. I will be jumping back into the other two lessons today.

  21. Betty Etzler on December 28, 2023 at 6:25 pm

    Hi Anna, Excellent & timely blog! Ordered both works & eager to read them! As a retired therapist and latent artist this blog is definitely serendipitous beyond measure. I’ve been middle of the road on oil painting for the past 6 months. There is a 50% desire to stay with Watercolor, which I love thanks to you; and a 50% challenge to explore the newer, faster drying oils. Maybe these suggested books will move me along. Happy New Year

  22. Hugh McGuire on December 29, 2023 at 10:30 pm

    Anna, thanks for all the info re Alzheimer’s. My wife of 60 years was positively diagnosed with Moderate Alzheimer’s in early August this year (2023). I only wish that there was more said about the early signs of this disease. I agree about the things we can do to stave off Alzheimer’s.
    I’m going to check out the books you mentioned. There is one other that was recommended by Marcia’s neuropsychologist for me. Actually it didn’t impress me, except for the title – The Thirty Six Hour Day. Each day we seem to be getting closer to that and it cuts into my time yet I must find time for me – hopefully through W.C. Perhaps someone else can get more out of the book.

  23. Manali Mehta on December 31, 2023 at 9:07 am

    Thank you for this post, Anna! My father is 68 years and is suffering from Alzheimer’s. We are going through a very difficult time, right now. It’s only going to get worse, way forward. I was so happy when I joined your school. I thought I could finally get back to painting again. Thanks to you for the time I spent at school making beautiful paintings, that I could cope up with the loss of my job. It gave me so much joy and helped me lessen the emotional turmoil. Now, I feel so tired and stressed that it’s been months I’ve picked up my brush.
    But deep down, I feel that the only thing that I really want to do is to be able to express myself through art. To be able to find out how far I can go in my art journey. However, I am always struggling for time and juggling between priorities.
    I pray in the New Year, God gives me the strength to do what I must. I also pray he never gives this disease to anyone. It’s completely heart-breaking to see your loved one to be no longer the same person you once knew.

  24. Edith Des Harkins on January 2, 2024 at 8:02 pm

    As you age, any one little thing as “Why can’t I remember that actors name?” can start you questioning your mental status. As a former interior designer specializing in medical design we designed Alzheimer units using paintings of familiar scenes with soothing colors. As you work among the patients you think, surely this will never happen to me but will it? So yes, keep active, learn something new. Four years ago I started watercolor painting, and it has brought me a lot of satisfaction and to my friends and family who seem to love their cards on birthdays and Christmas. So yes, learning something new works.
    I wish you all good health in this New Year

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