For thousands of years, people have searched for the meaning and beauty of life in music, painting, poetry and other arts. Now scientists are finding that the arts can benefit both your mental and physical health.
Visiting a gallery is not simply about experiencing those things that make us feel better. It helps people to work through their emotions, and leads to an enhanced sense of wellbeing. This means it helps us to develop emotional resilience. Art is everyday therapy for the soul.
BENEFITS OF VISITING AN ART GALLERY
A study showed that, on average, students who visited an art museum performed 9% of a standard deviation higher in their ability to reason critically. These included the students’ observations, interpretations, evaluations, associations, instances of problem findings, comparisons and instances of flexible thinking.¹
Art is communication and therapy. Art makes us more human, it helps us to communicate in a different, personal language. The stimulus of the creative mind allows people to positively isolate from reality, which provides a mental rest that lowers stress and generates relaxation and happiness. This helps for aggression and nervousness.
Measurement of the steroid stress hormone cortisol is increasingly employed as an objective biomarker of stress. It takes about 15 minutes for a stressor to elicit increased cortisol secretion. Research has explored the impact of positive experiences within a naturalistic setting on cortisol levels. Visiting an art gallery for a brief lunchtime visit substantially influences both the subjective experience of stress, as well as levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is well known that males are more responsive to stressful events, and those that entered the gallery with high levels of cortisol had a more significant drop in cortisol and stress.
THE BRAIN AND ART
Descriptive reviews of studies to date have indicated that aesthetic experience in response to viewing artworks is indeed a function of a distributed set of brain areas, each of which is hypothesised to underlie a different component process modulated by task demands. It is almost universally assumed that a primary objective of art is to evoke affective responses in the viewer. This includes activating the nucleus accumbens, a key brain region mediating a variety of behaviours. An aesthetic experience associated with exposure to works of art can improve perceptual, cognitive and emotional processes of the brain.²
People underwent brain scans while being shown a series of 30 paintings by some of the world’s greatest artists. The artworks they considered most beautiful increased the blood flow in a certain part of the brain by as much as 10%. What was found is that when you look at art – whether it is a landscape, a still life, an abstract or a portrait – there is strong activity in the part of the brain related to pleasure.
PAINTING AND HEALTH
People who immerse themselves for several hours painting or creating something enter a purer area, a very strong state of concentration. They abstract themselves from their surroundings. Physical pains fade away. Painting also benefits mental health. It not only distracts us from our problems, but it helps us to transform anguish into something pleasant – this is useful in times of emotional imbalance. Adults who learn to paint overcome the fear to confront themselves and learn to persevere and are encouraged to create something that belongs only to them – a personal project, unique and enormously satisfying. When the emotions flow while painting, it creates harmony between the heart and mind – which leads us to experience happiness, love, empathy and peace. Painting is a tool that in the long run benefits our emotional, energetic and spiritual well-being.
PAINTING AND HEALTH/TRAUMA
When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they’re not stored as words, but as images. Art therapy is uniquely suited to access these memories. After the image has been drawn, you can then progress to forming words to describe them. This externalises the trauma – moves it out of isolation, onto the page and into a positive exchange. This is an active involvement in your own healing.
VIEW ART IN A GALLERY NOT ON THE INTERNET
Art must be experienced to truly appreciate a sense of its magnitude. Viewing artwork on the Internet is like walking by a gallery on a rainy night and wiping the fog from the window to get a peek. You think you can see the art, but there is a barrier obscuring your vision – distance from the actual art work can distract your perception. There is a big difference between being the most connected person and being the best connected person. The same with being at an art gallery, like meeting a friend in person.
As Picasso said, ‘Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.’ Both viewing and creating art has a positive effect on health and well-being.
ARTS AND CREATIVITY WITH AGEING
Why should a sense of control have a positive effect on health with ageing? Because the mind influences the body. The field of behavioural neuroscience has revolutionised the way we understand the brain’s ability to adapt and keep itself vital. This is referred to as brain plasticity. This work has changed our understanding of what we ourselves can do to keep our brains and minds healthy through creatively challenging ourselves in a sustained manner. This means our brain plasticity improves, so when you are doing art, your brain is running at full speed.
Enjoying great art is not just uplifting for the soul, but beneficial to health. Art experiences can help improve health and well-being and can result in benefits that range from the physiological to the emotional. Close encounters with art can offer a time-out from the pressure of modern living by providing a space within which to reflect. Art enables us to learn, connect, take notice and delight in the world around us. It helps us to see things from a different perspective. At its best, it can remind us that life is curious and joyful.
- Bowen DH, Greene JP, et al. Learning to think critically. Educational Researcher. 2014;Vol 43(1):37-44.
- Leder H, Belke B, et al. A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgement. British Journal of Psychology. 2004;95:489-508.