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Is Art Good for Your Mental Health


Resting place. An acrylic painting of a person in water by BRUSHWRK user colebound

According to a study carried out by the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health issues affect nearly half of the global population at some point, by age 40. Thanks to the increased destigmatisation of discussions around depression, anxiety, angst, grief and loneliness, the relatively recent question of whether art can be good for your mental health has been popping up. However, art and mental health have always been strongly associated together, albeit with this relationship taking on a different nature over the years. For centuries, the darker emotions and more complicated parts of the human psyche served as inspiration to artists.


The myth and aggrandization of the "mad artist" is commonly associated with Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) who was known to have severed his own ear during a heated fight with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903), and later sent the remnants to a maid working at a brothel later identified as Gabrielle Berlatier.


van gogh painting with his ear cut off

Another example of a famous artist associated with mental suffering is Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944). Munch, widely known for his painting, The Scream, consistently drew on emotional turmoil. Some of his other paintings such as The Sick Child and Anxiety similarly drew on such emotions.


The scream painting by Edvard Munch

This begs the question: is there a biological link between art and mental condition? Were these prolific artists so drawn to their crafts because of some effect it had on their psyche? While the second question is difficult to answer, the first has already been answered by decades of extensive research. Enter Neuroesthetics!


Neuroesthetics and the Science of Art

Neuroesthetics is the scientific study of perceptions of art, music or literature. Thanks to this field of scientific research, there is evidence of the effects of arts on the human brain. In neuroesthetics, brain imaging, brain wave technology and biofeedback techniques are used to observe and monitor the brain and its mental state. In one study, researchers used biofeedback to study the effect of visual art on connections in the brain and found that visual art promotes health, wellness and improved responses to stress. In another study, cognitive neuroscientists found that creating art reduces cortisol levels. Cortisol is an indicator of stress and higher cortisol levels means higher stress. The researchers in the study found that while creating art, the participants in the study showed very low cortisol levels, which remained low even after they'd finished working on their art.


How Does Art Actually Improve Your Mental Health

So we know that art improves our mental health, but exactly what effect does it have? Let's walk through some of the proven measurable effects of art:


Improved Well-Being

First of all, art can have a powerful effect on your well-being through your environment, and by extension, your experience of said environment. It can lighten a harsh, clinical hospital room or even bring life to a dull office. Humanising and beautifying one's environment has the effect of reducing anxiety, while improving general happiness. However, it doesn't end there. The relationship between the arts and mental health is well established by the field of art therapy. Art therapy employs art-based activities as interventions for mental health issues. In July 2017, Gavin Clayton, executive director of Arts and Minds and one of the founders of the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, observed from an evaluation of weekly workshops that there was a 71% decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73% fall in depression; 76% of participants said their wellbeing increased and 69% felt more socially included.


Mindfulness

To be mindful is to be aware and conscious of your state-of-mind and thoughts without judgement. Mindfulness is the act of being mindful and is a trending practice that is used for managing mental health. Creating or observing art shifts cognitive focus which makes such activities effective tools for mindfulness. From a scientific point of view, engaging with visual art has been found to activate different regions of the brain than those activated during the linear, logical thinking of daily life. In short, the arts create conditions for mindfulness by activating and engaging different parts of the brain through conscious shifting of mental states.


Learning and Education

The benefits of arts in education and learning development are vast! Some of these benefits include developing creativity, improved academic performance and focus. Arts encourage and allow individuals to think creatively. If an individual is well-practiced in thinking creatively, this quality will extend itself to other parts of their lives such as their career. Furthermore, the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to focus and attention. Training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. Focusing our attention on learning and performing an art—if we practice frequently and are truly engaged—activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally. While this might seem like quite an associative leap, it is grounded in science as we have learned that attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in March 2009, researchers used brain imaging scans to examine brain changes in young children who underwent a 4 year music training program, compared with a control group of children who did not receive music training. In the first round of testing, after 15 months, the researchers found structural changes in brain circuits involved in music processing in the children who received training. They did not find the same changes in the control group.



So why can the arts be so beneficial? According to Phil George, chair of Arts Council Wales, "The arts are a way of forming, shaping and holding in front of your eyes something you feel internally. It’s about storytelling. It helps people develop a narrative of their lives and relate to their own experience in a new way".



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