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Art as Healing


Take a moment to think of the adult coloring books that can be found in your local Michaels or other craft store. It likely has complex, geometric, and cohesive designs that any person could theoretically complete. It is satisfying to finish coloring in the final shape, and despite the fact that it likely does not give credit to mandala and all that Indian culture has contributed to the commercialization of adult coloring books, it feels good. The feelings that result from engagement with visually pleasurable imagery, whether viewing it or creating it, falls into the field of neuroaesthetics. Like the general lack of public knowledge about mandala and other forms of healing through art, there is a lack of public understanding of what is happening in the human brain when engaging with aesthetic stimuli. And yet, various methods of engagement with art have been proven to provide physical and emotional benefits to regulate, distract from, and describe pain, leading to the conclusion that to lead the happiest, healthiest, and most pain-free lifestyle, art should be a regular source of engagement for everyone—and to reach everyone, art healing needs to be more accessible and accepted within the entire population.


The key component of the overall benefits of visual arts is the concept of awe. Dr. Shilagh Mirgain at the University of Wisconsin writes that awe provides a sense of hope and the feeling of fulfillment, both helpful feelings to tap into when dealing with patients who have lost hope of recovery or feel that they do not have control over their condition (qtd. in Phillips). Mirgain is not the only one to make this observation. Research at UC Berkeley sampled tissue in the cheek and gums of 200 adults who were tasked with describing what positive emotions they were feeling throughout their trials. The samples showed the lowest levels of cytokine interleukin 6—a marker of inflammation and previously linked to depression—when the participants were experiencing wonder and amazement (Agency). Additionally, the areas of the brain responsible for pleasure become extremely active during creative engagement, releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine to create a feeling of euphoria (Phillips). Although the positive effects of interacting with art can be seen on a neurological level, a main question in neuroaesthetic research is what methods of art interaction are most beneficial for coping with pain, and in what ways do they deal with that pain, whether it be through modulation, elimination, acceptance, or other forms?


Art engagement can occur in many different ways. However, there are two ways in particular—art therapy and art healing—that are commonly misunderstood but have important distinctions that need to be made. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) is very clear about what art therapy is and what it is not. Art therapy is defined as “an integrative mental health and human services profession” which can be used to improve cognition, self-esteem, and general function (American Art Therapy Association). However, art therapy is often associated with quick gimmicks in advertising, workshops, and adult coloring books like the ones mentioned previously that appropriate mandala, a drawing practice relating to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Indian religions. This does not mean that these are invalid ways of using the benefits of art engagement, but art therapy must be provided by an art therapist with proper training and credentials. In contrast, art healing does not necessarily require a trained professional but is instead considered a self-help version of art therapy. Furthermore, art therapy is about interpreting your resulting work, whereas art healing focuses on the creation of the work as a form of healing in itself (The Westreich Foundation). Art healing can also be used as an umbrella term for all of the ways in which art interaction benefits health. Both art therapy and art healing are powerful ways of using art to promote recovery.

There are three ways of dealing with pain that overlap in studies of art healing; awareness of pain, representation of pain, and modulation of pain. An example of a study dealing with all three was conducted with women suffering from heart disease. They were asked to draw responses to the prompts “the heart at the center” (awareness), “the heart in the lived body” (representation), and “heart disease as a social illness” (modulation) (Stuckey and Nobel 256). The exercise allowed the women to express their knowledge of their disease in relation to themselves, a link that supports self-awareness and its importance in healing. Similarly, women with cancer who were asked to report how visual arts aided in their healing noted that it allowed them to focus on positive life experiences that existed despite their cancer, enhance their self-worth and identity, and express their feelings even under extremely physically taxing treatments like chemotherapy (Stuckey and Nobel 257). Serotonin, another neurotransmitter important in combating depression, is also released throughout creative processes. Deepak Chopra, a leader in alternative medicine, calls this state of engaging in a creative process “restful alertness,” a term that can also be used to describe the effects of meditation (The Westreich Foundation).


Beyond creating art, viewing art is also more than just a passive act; one of the leading scientists in neuroaesthetics, Semir Zeki, directed research to prove this point. Zeki’s research revealed that when people look at paintings that they consider beautiful—regardless of its contents—blood flow in the brain increased by as much as 10%, which is the same difference seen when looking at a loved one (Phillips). In short, the effect on the brain is equally if not more drastic when people view art. Because there is often hesitation to create art, viewing art serves as a less intimidating alternative that anyone can participate in. Jacob Devaney, a creative activist and musician, notes the role that mirror neurons play in our understanding of a piece of artwork. Mirror neurons fire when a person observes an action being performed by another, thus generating the same feeling, as if the viewer were participating in the action themselves. As a result, when viewing a piece of art or another person creating art, your brain fires the same neurons, stimulating inspiration and drawing the viewer into the painting. This feeling is called “embodied cognition,” and several hospitals are beginning to recognize its potential as a medical tool (Phillips). In Quebec, for the first time, patients can receive a prescription to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts free of charge. The initiative began to study patients suffering from eating disorders, breast cancer, mental illness, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and other debilitating conditions. Hélène Boyer, a doctor in family medicine and the vice president of Médecins francophones du Canada, states that these methods aren’t restricted to mental health, but can also be used for diabetic patients, palliative patients, and patients suffering from chronic illness (Cascone). The combination of neurotransmitters being released that have been previously described provides similar benefits to working out or prescription medication without the physical requirements, possible side effects, or cost of these traditional options.


One of the largest and most reputable hospitals in the nation is taking a slightly different approach by bringing the museum into hospital walls. The Cleveland Clinic has amassed 6,800 artworks (not including 15,000 art posters) since the 1920s and formed an Arts and Medicine Institute in 2008, two years after establishing an in-house art program. Although the only art found in a hospital is usually the same landscapes and abstract works used in hotel rooms and restaurants, the clinic’s collection includes diversity in subject matter and artists, creating a more holistic view of artworks that deal with the human condition and contemporary culture. The executive director and curator behind much of the operation, Joanne Cohen, recognizes that it’s “the eclectic nature of the collection [that] gives it strength” (Wecker). Representation is already an issue in the more general art world, and so the Cleveland Clinic’s ability to both diversify our understanding of who can make art and also fully embrace the tried and true benefits of art healing should serve as a model for other medical spaces.


Art engagement is not a miracle solution to end pain like many “alternative” methods are perceived. Instead, it is a supplementary tool that should be used in the most extreme conditions as well as everyday preventative measures, regardless of one’s overall physical, mental, and emotion health or lack thereof. The main barrier to integration of art practices seems to be skepticism. However, due to the low risk factor, proven abilities to improve one’s self-awareness and general attitude towards their health, and relatively low cost for hospitals and individuals in comparison to medication or other forms of therapy, art healing is an option that can theoretically reach anyone. If people feel intimidated about creating art due to the harmful notion that one can only use art if they are “good” at it, there is always viewing art, which is even cheaper than creating it and—as previously mentioned in Devaney’s work—produces similar cognitive benefits to creating work oneself. When it comes to affordable and enjoyable ways for people to manage their health and pain levels, engaging with art should be a universally respected and credible option. Ultimately, hospitals should stop asking why try art engagement and instead ask, why not? The evidence in favor of art engagement continues to build as the field of neuroaesthetics becomes more supported, and it is imperative that this momentum be used to build a culture where art engagement is valued as a credible tool for pain management and overall well-being.


Works Cited

Agency. “Art Does Heal: Scientists Say Appreciating Creative Works Can Fight off Disease.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 10 Feb. 2015, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11403404/Art-does-heal-scientists-say-appreciating-creative-works-can-fight-off-disease.html.


“American Art Therapy Association.” American Art Therapy Association, https://arttherapy.org/.


Cascone, Sarah. “Blues Period? Doctors in Montreal Will Now Prescribe Visits to the Museum as Treatment for All Kinds of Ailments.” Artnet News, ArtNet News, 23 Oct. 2018, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/doctor-museum-visits-treatment-1377736.


“Creative Arts and Consciousness – Arts in Healing.” The Westreich Foundation, http://thewestreichfoundation.org/creative-arts-and-consciousness-arts-in-healing/.


Park West Gallery. “Art and Health: The Real-World Benefits of Viewing Art.” Park West Gallery, Park West Gallery, 14 June 2019, https://www.parkwestgallery.com/art-and-health-the-benefits-of-viewing-art/.


Phillips, Renée. “Art Enhances Brain Function and Well-Being.” The Healing Power of ART & ARTISTS, Mar. 2015, https://www.healing-power-of-art.org/art-and-the-brain/.


Stuckey, Heather L., and Jeremy Nobel. “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 100, no. 2, 2010, pp. 254–263., doi:10.2105/ajph.2008.156497.


Wecker, Menachem. “'Fine Art Is Good Medicine': How Hospitals Around the World Are Experimenting With the Healing Power of Art.” ArtNet News, 2 Aug. 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/how-hospitals-heal-with-art-1606699.

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© 2020 Jazzmin Imani Cox-Cáceres 

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