Watching artists work, whether spray painting walls or making sketches on paper, many people wonder about talent: Where does it come from? Researchers of a new study published in NeuroImage discovered fine artists have structurally different brains compared to non-artists, suggesting they may simply be born with the gift of seeing beyond the ordinary.

Long fascinated by painters and others with visual talents, Dr. Rebecca Chamberlain, lead author of the study, often debated whether artists had innate abilities or if they had taught themselves to perceive the world in a new way. “A lot of artists reported they turn on this way of seeing when they’re drawing,” she told BBC’s Inside Science. Because of this, she decided to focus her research on “exploring how perception of objects and scenes impacts upon how people draw them, and how artistic training helps artists to see the world in novel and alternative ways.”

To begin her study, Chamberlain and her colleagues enlisted the help of 21 graduate and post-graduate art students and 23 non-art students who were asked to complete drawing tasks. The researchers used a neuroimaging technique called voxel-based morphometry to see what might be happening in each of their brains as well as to examine differences across the participants. Then, the researchers compared scores on the drawing tasks with the results of the brain scan to determine potential differences in regional gray and white matter. What did the researchers discover?

The artists had structurally different brains and the distinctions existed in regions of the brain linked to visual imagery and fine movements. Those better at drawing had increased density of gray matter in the left anterior cerebellum and the right medial frontal gyrus. Generally, the artists also had greater density of gray matter in the right precuneus. Gray matter is composed of actual nerve cells for the most part, while white matter primarily hosts communication and interaction between the gray matter regions. The researchers do not fully understand what the differences they discovered might mean, yet they noted, “This suggests that observational drawing ability relates to changes in structures pertaining to fine motor control and procedural memory, and that artistic training in addition is associated with enhancement of structures pertaining to visual imagery.”

Past research based on autistic savants has suggested that drawing ability might be partially explained by the attention paid to visual input. For her current study on artists, then, Chamberlain decided to use the same theory and methodology employed in autism spectrum disorder studies as a way of understanding detail-focused processing while drawing. “The findings corroborate the findings of small-scale fMRI studies and provide insights into the properties of the developing artistic brain,” the authors concluded.

Source: Chamberlain R, McManus C, Brunswick N, Rankin Q, Riley H, Kanai R. Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing. Neuroimage. 2014.