We know that art improves our wellbeing, but exactly what effect does it have?
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 an inspiration to artists.
'Self-portrait with bandaged Ear' by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, Courtauld Gallery, London
The myth and aggrandization of the "mad artist" are 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.
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 these emotions.
'The Scream' by Edvard Munch (1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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 mean 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.
'Resting Place' by Nicole Holder (2017), courtesy of BRUSHWRK user colebound
How does art actually improve your mental health?