Anything that engages your creative mind — the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate is good for you.”
- Girija Kaimal, professor at Drexel University and a researcher in art therapy
You Don’t Have to Be an Artist to Make Art
Harvard Medical School reminds everyone that it’s the process not the product that matters, so don’t worry if your artwork doesn’t look like it belongs in a museum. More good news: while the rest of your body is aging, your creative abilities do not deteriorate.
Neurological research shows that making art can improve cognitive functions by producing both new neural pathways and thicker, stronger dendrites. Thus, art enhances cognitive reserve, helping the brain actively compensate for pathology by using more efficient brain networks or alternative brain strategies. Making art or even viewing art causes the brain to continue to reshape, adapt, and restructure, thus expanding the potential to increase brain reserve capacity.
Christianne Strang, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, promises that if you stick with it, you’ll enjoy it. In her 30-year career as an art therapist, she has found that “99% of the time, people find that if they give up the idea that they’re not good enough, if they give up the judgment, making art actually feels good.”
The Neuroscience of Art-making
For a lot of people, making art can be nerve-wracking. What are you going to make? What kind of materials should you use? What if you can’t execute it? What if it isn’t good?
Studies show that despite those fears, “engaging in any sort of visual expression results in the reward pathway in the brain being activated,” says Kaimal. “Which means that you feel good and it’s perceived as a pleasurable experience.”
Although the research in the field of art therapy is emerging, there’s evidence that making art can lower stress and anxiety. In a 2016 paper in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Kaimal and a group of researchers measured cortisol levels of 39 healthy adults. Cortisol is a hormone that helps the body respond to stress.
They found that 45 minutes of creating art in a studio setting with an art therapist significantly lowered cortisol levels.
The paper also showed that there were no differences in health outcomes between people who identify as experienced artists and people who don’t. So that means that no matter your skill level, you’ll be able to feel all the good things that come with making art.
Art And Stress Reduction
On the U.S. National Institute of Health’s (NIH) website, according to the extensive research publication The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature by Heather L. Stuckey, DEd and Jeremy Nobel, MD, “Engagement with creative activities has the potential to contribute toward reducing stress and depression and can serve as a vehicle for alleviating the burden of chronic disease.” They also stated, “Through creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.”
During self-isolation due to coronavirus, many people turned to the arts. Perhaps they sought a creative outlet or opportunity for expression, but it’s also possible that their attraction may be driven by an innate desire to use their brains in ways that make them feel good.
Mental health issues affect nearly half of the global population, at some point, by age 40. Add to that, recent challenges of the pandemic for maintaining mental wellness, managing fears, and uncertainty, and one thing is clear: it’s time to think differently when it comes to how we engage our minds.
In another study, cognitive neuroscientists found that creating art reduces cortisol levels (markers for stress), and that through art people can induce positive mental states. These studies are part of a new field of research, called neuroesthetics: the scientific study of the neurobiological basis of the arts.
Neuroesthetics uses brain imaging, brain wave technology, and biofeedback to gather scientific evidence of how we respond to the arts. Through this, there is physical, scientific evidence that the arts engage the mind in novel ways, tap into our emotions in healthy ways, and make us feel good.
Mindfulness and Flow
The arts have also been found to be effective tools for mindfulness, a trending practice in schools that is effective for managing mental health. Much like meditation, art can calm your mind by helping you focus on the moment, a popular strategy for reducing anxiety and other negative feelings. Getting lost in thought while you create can help your brain and body relax, which also leads to stress reduction and improved health.
Being mindful is being aware and conscious of your thoughts and state of mind without judgment. The cognitive-reflective aspects of the arts, in addition to their ability to shift cognitive focus, make them especially effective as tools for mindfulness. Specifically, engaging with visual art has been found to activate different parts of the brain other than those taxed by logical, linear thinking; and another study found that visual art activated distinct and specialized visual areas of the brain.
In short: the arts create conditions for mindfulness by accessing and engaging different parts of the brain through the conscious shifting of mental states. For those of us who practice regularly in the arts, we are aware of those states, able to shift in and out, and reap the physiological benefits through a neurological system that delights in and rewards cognitive challenges. Neuroesthetic findings suggest this is not an experience exclusive to artists: it is simply untapped by those who do not practice in the arts.
Helping Healthcare Workers
While many health care facilities offer well-being programs for staff, expressive art programs are considered to be among the most effective when it comes to coping with symptoms of burnout and anxiety.
For more than 30 years, studies have shown the benefits of incorporating the arts into wellness and mental health programs. In 2019, the World Health Organization published a scoping review that provided significant evidence of the role of the arts on improving health and well-being.
Studies conducted in 2007 by Repar and Patton demonstrated that arts programs can lower rates of tension, anger, depression, and fatigue—symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue.
The Arts and Healthy Aging: How Does Art Affect the Brain?
Art and creativity can play an important role in brain development for children, but did you know painting, coloring, and other artistic pursuits offer numerous health benefits to older adults? In addition to providing an engaging pastime, art may also improve cognition, increase social interactions, and has even been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.
How does art affect the brain and provide these important benefits? Researchers say that creative pursuits help to build connections in the brain to strengthen cognitive reserve,
or brain resilience, and subsequently prevent memory loss. Creating artwork can also improve fine motor skills through small, purposeful movements, which may help to prevent pain
Beyond the physical and mental benefits, art can have an important emotional impact as well. For those who have trouble expressing themselves, creating a visual representation of thoughts and feelings can be a simpler way to communicate. Communication with others reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation.
AARP says that doing the arts and crafts you did as a child can help you connect to positive childhood memories and emotions.