Art is good for you. And just like the effort you put into taking better care of yourself through exercise and healthy eating, it’s important that you bolster your brain’s integrity through activities that provide positive psychological stimulation. Art easily fulfills this goal, for both those who consume it and those who make it. When you gaze upon a piece of artwork you really love and experience a deep sense of calm or joy, research is showing that this beautiful sensation of euphoria is not at all incidental. Most important, repeated exposure to the source of this positive stimulation makes you a calmer, more emotionally balanced person.
In several blog posts I’ve mentioned how I’ve begun to incorporate meditation into my art practice, how creating art is itself an act of mindfulness for me. During past periods of my life where I wasn’t regularly making art, I’ve drifted into depression and an overall sense of just feeling run down. As soon as I reengaged my heart’s love-painting, drawing, writing- I returned to a better version of myself. Psychological and neurological studies are producing real data corroborating that this perception of “feeling better” after engaging in an art experience is more than anecdotal, and the result of measurable chemical and electrical changes in the brain.
Visual aids (quite fitting with the subject) help to drive the point home. MRI scans illustrate that viewing, collecting and creating art stimulate the emotion and reward centers of our brains. When we observe a piece of art that deeply pleases us, dopamine is released producing a psychological state similar to falling in love. As with mindful meditation, the act of regularly consuming and creating art is powerful enough to “rewire” our brains to improve our capacity for empathy and self-awareness while also increasing our resistance to stress1. A London study from the University of Westminster found that gallery visitors’ cortisol levels (the stress hormone) decreased after a 35 minute lunchtime stroll through the gallery.2 And interestingly, research has also shown that art affects men and women differently, with women receiving the most benefit from the act of making art, and men receiving greater benefit from consuming it.3
Art has been used by various cultures as a healing device for thousands of years. Now with scientific proof behind its benefits, it seems almost implausible not to tap such an easily accessible resource that not only has the ability to beautify your work or living space, but that can also improve your mental health and wellbeing. I hope you’re encouraged to place inspiring artworks throughout your home, to make more frequent visits to your local museum or gallery, or to even pick up a pen or brush yourself.
The pace of 21st century life can grind you into dust, and our ever-growing dependence on digital devices that grant us greater access while at the same time reducing human contact can leave us stranded in an emotionally bankrupt desert. Access to art that exposes us to other cultures, that inspires and deepens our insight and that engages our heart and mind in play or deep exploration can be a daily source of enrichment and a potent dose of protection against the stresses of modern life.
Resources for further reading:
- (2014) How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity. PLOS ONE 9(12): e116548
- (2006) Normalisation of salivary cortisol levels and self-report stress by a brief lunchtime visit to an art gallery by London City workers. Journal of Holistic Healthcare, 3 (2).pp. 29-32
- (2012) Patterns of receptive and creative cultural activities and their association with perceived health, anxiety, depression and satisfaction with life among adults: the HUNT study, Norway. 66(8):698-703