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How Mandalas and Brain Scans Could Enhance Mindfulness

person drawing a mandala

Kirill Kulakov / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The mandala is both spiritually symbolic and used in art therapy to alleviate stress and increase focus.
  • A recent study used brain-sensing technology to explore the role of mandala coloring in mindfulness practices.
  • Mandala coloring, and art therapy in general, can be accessible and affordable options for mental health care.

Sanskrit for "circle," mandalas are geometric diagrams that serve as symbolic maps for sacred rituals and meditation in such religions as Hinduism and Buddhism. Thought to represent the cosmos and other deities, they're often used as tools for a spiritual journey.

Psychological research has also linked mandala-making, even just the act of coloring in, to stress-relief. In fact, renowned psychologist Carl Jung studied mandalas as a window to the subconscious and believed the creation of these images encouraged focus and personal growth in patients.

Today, coloring as a mindful practice has become increasingly popular, with some adult coloring books devoted entirely to mandalas. But what is it about these shapes that gear them toward a more present, mindful state? A new study exploring the connection between mandala coloring and mindfulness suggests that brain-sensing technology can help us understand the connection.

The Research

Unlike a blank canvas awaiting paint, a mandala presents a more structured approach to coloring through an array of simple, often symmetrical shapes. The designs are accessible, the materials are inexpensive and finishing a full mandala offers a sense of accomplishment. These may be reasons why mandala coloring has become so popular in times of stress.

Curious as to whether this mindfulness practice could be deepened, a group of human-computer interaction researchers, who study computing technologies and their potential to help people, designed a study involving mandala-coloring and brain-sensing technology.

Claudia Dauden Roquet, PhD

I found fascinating how using metaphorical representations of internal processes, such as colors to represent emotional states, was really helpful to externalize them, become more aware and work with them in a fairly effortless way.

— Claudia Dauden Roquet, PhD

Researchers began by interviewing "experienced mandala practitioners" to better understand the subject. They then designed a prototype including a tablet and stylus for coloring, an EEG headset and a separate display shaped like an artist's palette.

While the participant colored, the headset monitored their brain signals to gauge the level of mindfulness. Those readings then produced real-time feedback on the palette display to indicate the level of mindfulness achieved. The display presented brightness of color as an indicator of mindfulness levels and was placed within the participant's peripheral vision in order to guide the individual without totally distracting them.

"Participants described how having color-based metaphorical representations of their mindfulness states in the periphery, enhanced self-awareness and reflection without being too cognitively demanding or overwhelming," says lead study author Claudia Dauden Roquet, PhD.

The findings suggest that coloring mandalas induces self-reflection, focused attention and acceptance of imperfections while promoting emotional well-being and self-expression. Roquet adopted mindfulness practices like meditation and mandala coloring years ago after taking an interest in understanding how we get in touch with our thoughts and emotions.

"I found fascinating how using metaphorical representations of internal processes, such as colors to represent emotional states, was really helpful to externalize them, become more aware and work with them in a fairly effortless way," Roquet says.

Creating Art As Therapy

Art as a therapeutic intervention is an effective treatment style for people of all ages, says Eric Patterson, LPC, who specializes in art therapy, depression and personality disorders.

"Expressive arts can play an invaluable role for someone’s mental health and well-being because they can help the person communicate without words and express the unmentionable," Patterson says. "The arts can make someone feel strong and capable of creating beauty after ugly experiences."

So much more goes into an art practice than just the physical or mental act of coloring, as exemplified in the study. When it comes to mandala coloring, participants lauded the accessibility, affordability and sense of accomplishment provided by this practice.

Eric Patterson, LPC

The arts can make someone feel strong and capable of creating beauty after ugly experiences.

— Eric Patterson, LPC

"It was a moment of self-care in which they didn’t have to think about anything else," Roquet says. "They would brew their favorite tea, sit looking out their favorite window and avoid looking at their phones for a little while. Approaching mandala coloring in such a ritualistic way, seemed to create the perfect safe space for them to check on their emotions and thoughts non-judgementally through coloring."

Roquet notes that the most common challenge cited by patients was finding the time to practice mandala coloring regularly amid busy schedules and responsibilities. But just as with any healthy habit, real results and benefits come from commitment and an open mind.

"I hope that our work can inspire individuals who are looking to be more mindful to explore ways in which familiar and accessible practices, such as mandala coloring, can help them be more in touch with their feelings and emotions," she says.

What This Means For You

Mandala coloring and other forms of expressive art as mindfulness practice can provide an easy and rewarding therapeutic outlet from the comfort of your home.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Slegelis M. A study of Jung's Mandala and its relationship to art psychotherapyArts Psychother. 1987;14(4):301-311. doi:10.1016/0197-4556(87)90018-9

  3. Daudén Roquet C, Sas C, Potts D. Exploring Anima: a brain–computer interface for peripheral materialization of mindfulness states during mandala coloringHuman–Computer Interaction. 2021. doi:10.1080/07370024.2021.1968864