Studies have shown that creative activities like writing, drawing or knitting can help reduce depression, stress and anxiety, but scientists aren’t yet certain how creative thinking might help individuals shift out of negative thought patterns and into more flexible states of mind.

“My research has been trying to understand the neurobiology of depression in young people,” said Kathryn Cullen, MD, associate professor and head of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “How are brain circuits different in adolescence? How are they developing, and how do they change with interventions?”

Dr. Cullen, along with a diverse, multidisciplinary team, is investigating how creative therapies might help adolescents experiencing depression through their project, “Measuring and Enhancing Creativity and Brain Flexibility in Adolescents with Depression.” Dr. Cullen, the project’s principal investigator, assembled a team of faculty and staff from across the University of Minnesota system – including the Medical School, College of Design, School of Public Health, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota Rochester and Weisman Art Museum – to advance new interventions for adolescents experiencing depression, since traditional treatments aren’t always effective for everyone. 

The project’s eight co-investigators incorporated insights to develop a Creativity Camp designed to help young people with depression shift out of negative thought patterns through engagement in creative activities. The project was awarded one of two $250,000 Minnesota Futures Awards, presented annually by the Office of the Vice President for Research, and will extend for two years.

Novel Interventions

“I noticed that some patients with depression had developed a sort of narrow view or experience of the world,” Dr. Cullen said. “They might drop out of things that they once enjoyed, no longer engage with the world or no longer engage with their relationships.”

Instead of traditional therapies, which are often focused on symptoms and medication, Dr. Cullen hoped to inspire her patients and help them see something different inside themselves. Then, she was introduced to Yuko Taniguchi, MFA, a senior teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota Rochester and a co-investigator, who was leading a unique program at the Mayo Clinic teaching creative writing and origami classes to adolescent patients in the psychiatric ward.

“The kids loved it, and the doctors loved it,” Dr. Cullen said. “They would get these insights on how their patients were thinking and feeling based on their patients’ engagement in the arts. These insights would never come through in traditional treatment.”

Dr. Cullen began assembling the team and refining the project in 2019, receiving funding through the Office of Clinical Affairs’ BOLD Ideas grant. As the concept grew, they began thinking about looking at the brain to better understand how a creative intervention might impact the patient and designing the best way to measure this with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). 

“Using fMRI to look at the brain and how it acts and seeing if it’s activated differently during the creative process is particularly interesting to me,” said Bryon Mueller, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and one of the co-investigators. “My part is to help figure out how we can capture that change before and after the camp and relate that change in how the brain is working by introducing this Creativity Camp.”

Drs. Cullen and Mueller, along with co-investigators Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and Mark Fiecas, PhD, associate professor in the School of Public Health’s Division of Biostatistics, are also involved in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded study analyzing data from the nationwide Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) sStudy. Their project aims to better understand how cognitive flexibility might impact traits from resilience to creativity, in addition to risk factors for negative mental health outcomes, such as depression and risk of suicide.

“We started to ask questions about neural flexibility, and how it could be important,” Dr. Cullen said. “When you’re depressed, maybe you get really rigid in your thinking, and that’s why it’s so hard to get out of these stuck patterns. Maybe we can see the impact of an intervention that helps with brain flexibility.”

Bringing together this past research into creative interventions, resting state fMRI and cognitive flexibility, the team developed the idea of a Creativity Camp. The idea was inspired by Abimbola Asojo, PhD, professor in the College of Design and co-investigator, who organizes Design Summer Camps focused on exposing underrepresented youth to careers in design.

“We’ve talked a lot about how different people respond to various kinds of art and creativity,” Dr. Cullen said. “So, we wanted to expand Dr. Asojo’s great design camps and have design elements there.”

They also brought in co-investigator Wilma Koutstaal, PhD, professor in the College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Psychology, an expert in studying mental agility and creativity. Dr. Koutstaal has developed exercises proven to build mental agility, which will enhance how the team creates and measures its interventional activities.

Creativity Camp

The Creativity Camp, a two-week intervention, will look at participants’ brains before, during and after camp to understand how creative interventions might impact cognitive flexibility and changes in their condition. They plan to have three cohorts of 10 campers each, for a total of 30 randomized adolescent participants in the summer of 2022. 

“I’m all about finding more options to try to help kids,” Dr. Cullen said. “I also think it will help us learn about the neuroscience of creativity, and hopefully, we’ll be able to come up with a brain scan that can really capture the creative moment.”

They plan to conduct two MRIs prior to the camp, as the control, and then capture additional scans during and after camp, for a total of roughly 90 scans.

“We really want to focus on underrepresented youth and make sure we’re representing kids who aren’t usually a part of neuroscience or psychiatry research studies,” Dr. Cullen said. “We really want to do better by reaching out and building more community connections.”

The other aspect of the project is community engagement, which will be crucial to enroll a diverse group of participants. At the conclusion of the Creativity Camp, the group plans to invite the participants, their families and communities to the Weisman Art Museum. There, Boris Oicherman, PhD, the museum’s curator and a co-investigator, will help them not only showcase the art they created during camp, but also have a broader conversation about the lessons learned during the intervention. Co-investigator Angie Mejia Medina, PhD, a sociologist from the University of Minnesota Rochester and expert in community engagement and art-based research approaches, will help facilitate this aspect of the project. 

The long-term hope is that an intervention looking at creativity and cognitive flexibility will offer an alternative therapy option for adolescents. 

“Hopefully these kids experiencing depression will have a better prognosis, which is ultimately the most important,” Dr. Mueller said. “I’m very privileged to work with all these great people on this experiment.”

The project wouldn’t be possible without multidisciplinary input from across the University of Minnesota – from psychiatry, to arts, to biostatistics.

“When you’re talking to colleagues within your discipline, you’re going to come up with a certain set of solutions to a problem,” Dr. Cullen said. “When you bring that problem to other disciplines, you get broader, more interesting solutions and possibilities.”

The project’s co-investigators include:

  • Abimbola Asojo, PhD, Interior Design, College of Design

  • Mark Fiecas, PhD, Division of Biostatistics, School of Public Health

  • Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, PhD, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

  • Wilma Koutstaal, PhD, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

  • Bryon Mueller, PhD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Medical School

  • Angie Mejia Medina, PhD, Sociology, University of Minnesota Rochester

  • Boris Oicherman, PhD, Weisman Art Museum

  • Yuko Taniguchi, University of Minnesota Rochester