Think of a time you were having a terrible day.
At the end of it, you got in the car, turned on the radio, and up came a sad song. Perhaps it was “Nocturne Opus 9 Number 2” by Chopin, or maybe it was just “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter. Either way, it gave you the feels. Then, when you got home, you realized this melancholic jam session actually pulled you out of your anxiety. You experienced art remedy.
All across the country, art is healing people in ways similar to this, whether through the experiencing of a work of art, or through the creating of one. In fact, there is often a symbiotic relationship between the two. When someone creates a work of art to gratify an emotional need and then shares that work, they are transforming it into a product which can satisfy the emotional need of another.
Consider the case of singer/songwriter Brogan Gaskill. His commitment to penning honest lyrics doesn’t just bring internal healing. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is when his writing is the most intimate and personal that it becomes the most relatable and helpful to others. As he put it during his interview on a rainy March afternoon, “There’s this solidarity that happens when you stop thinking so much about pleasing others and start thinking about being honest.” Music, he has found, is an excellent place to go to express inner thoughts and feelings. Music heals; and somehow, it brings individuals together along the way. To Gaskill, this healing and connective power of music really is a Godsend.
How does listening to someone else’s work do anything therapeutic for the listener? Gaskill offered his own insight on this question: “A lot of the time people long for a genuine nature within songs,” he said, “because there’s a lot of things that go on in our thought life and walks of life that we don’t like to voice and sometimes don’t know how to voice until someone else voices it for us. And then we can say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how I feel as well; I’m not alone.'” Deeply personal music connects so well with others because so many people go through hardships. This is the power of a relatable lyric—it feels like it was written for one’s own self, about one’s feelings which may have been difficult to articulate. Listening, then, is no longer a passive act, but a form of self expression; and in being a form of self expression, music is therapeutic; it heals the mind.
This is in line with numerous medical studies researched by Harvard Health. Among these, music has been found to reduce stress in persons undergoing surgery and in their surgeons. Also, a study of 80 people found music being able to reduce the need for sedation. Even more astoundingly, “a study of 10 critically ill postoperative patients reported that music can reduce the stress response even when patients are not conscious” (Harvard Health Publishing). Moreover, what is good for the mind, studies have shown, is good for the body—music has been shown to improve stroke recovery, to strengthen the heart and circulation, and to help people be more active. Also, back to a mental note, it improves cognitive performance.
But music isn’t the only tool in art’s utility belt of remedy.
Across the country, people are going to therapy sessions where creating paintings, drawings, and sculpture take up the main time slot. This is called “art therapy”, and while it may not be as well known as other forms of therapy, it has proven itself to be on par with them in just about every way.
For instance, art therapists exist in all the settings you would expect to find any other healthcare professional (hospitals, schools, psychiatric and rehab facilities, senior communities, and private practice buildings). Additionally, they have to undergo quite a bit of training and are required to earn at least a master’s degree in art therapy if they desire to enter the field.
Art therapy’s results hold up to healthcare standards, too.
The American Art Therapy Association began compiling a bibliography of art-therapy related research in 2005, and by January 2021, they gathered 116 peer-reviewed studies evidencing its effectiveness. These effects range from improvement of autistic children’s social skills (AATA, “Outcomes”, 10), all the way to reducing anxiety from sexual trauma (89). Art therapy has been found in many cases to improve self esteem (8), and empower patients to overcome pain undergone during leukemia treatment and chemotherapy (21) And still, somehow, the list goes on quite a bit. See some ways and groups of people benefited by art therapy on the graphic to the right.
This may lead one to wonder, does visual art also work itself in two directions like music (meaning the people who have work shared with them are benefited just as the work’s creator)? Or is something like painting only helpful for the one doing the actual painting? The short answer to these questions is “yes,” and “no” in that respective order. A painting may not strike many people as being impactful in the same way as a good song; it may not seem as relatable. But a painting can leave quite the impression. Staff at the University of Arizona have found that paintings access a “relatable”-sensing part of our brain. The process, they say, is called “embodied cognition,” and relies on a certain kind of neuron in the brain called the mirror neuron. When any person views a painting, these nerves fire up. The result? Becoming a part of the painting. Not only will the viewer be transported into the canvas’ world and even experience physical sensations associated with its depicted environment—they will begin to place themselves into the shoes of the painter. “For instance,” the University of Arizona staff write, “viewers of a drip painting by Jackson Pollock can often feel like they are the ones flinging the paint onto the canvas”. So visual art establishes connections just as music does.
It is clear to see that by relating to the painter and the environment within a piece, viewing art can offer emotional healing, so it is no wonder a study shows it to reduce anxiety (Binnie). But is art’s ability to affect perception accompanied by physiological effect? Interestingly, yes. In 2004, an experiment done by Professor Semir Zeki, chair in neuroaesthetics at University College London, showed that more than just the activation of mirror neurons goes on in people’s heads when viewing art. Viewing art actually caused people to experience increased blood flow to the brain by 10% (Kawataba and Zeki). The moments in which this occurred are the particular moments when the people were viewing a painting that made them feel happy, the experiment reported. What does this mean? According to the study, an increase of blood flow to the brain by about 10% is a marker that someone is experiencing positive emotion at the level they would when seeing a loved one. Viewing art at a museum is not necessarily just a pastime; it can affect on a deep, emotional level. When art performs its duties of reducing anxiety, it does not just leave it there. It replaces that negative feeling with positive ones. Art truly does heal.
From this all, we know that art is remedy. And no matter its form, be it visual or aural, it reaches us the same. This world may throw a lot of troubles our way, but that does not mean we have to panic or give up. The tools for getting through our tough times, for dealing with disease, and fighting our pain, for getting through loss, or just a bad day, are right in front of us. And what a privilege it is that we get to create—and experience—something beautiful along the way.
Uttley L, Scope A, Stevenson M, et al. Systematic review and economic modelling of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of art therapy among people with non-psychotic mental health disorders. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2015 Mar. (Health Technology Assessment, No. 19.18.) Chapter 2, Clinical effectiveness of art therapy: quantitative systematic review. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279641/
AATA. “About Art Therapy.” American Art Therapy Association, 2017, arttherapy.org/about-art-therapy/.
Binnie, Jennifer. “Does Viewing Art in the Museum Reduce Anxiety and Improve Wellbeing?” Museums & Social Issues, vol. 5, no. 2, 18 July 2010, pp. 191–201., doi:10.1179/msi.2010.5.2.191.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Music and Health.” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, July 2011, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/music-and-health.
Kawabata, Hideaki, and Semir Zeki. “Neural Correlates of Beauty.” Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 91, no. 4, 1 Apr. 2004, pp. 1699–1705., doi:10.1152/jn.00696.2003.
Mendick, Robert. “Brain Scans Reveal the Power of Art.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 8 May 2011, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/8500012/Brain-scans-reveal-the-power-of-art.html.
Research Committee of the AATA. “Outcomes Bibliography.” American Art Therapy Association, Inc., 12 Jan. 2021, https://arttherapy.org/upload/OutcomesBib2021.pdf.
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, 27 May 2010, pp. 254–263., doi:10.2105/ajph.2008.156497.
UAGC: University of Arizona Global Campus. “How Looking at Art Can Help Your Brain.” UAGC, The University of Arizona Global Campus, 29 Nov. 2020, www.uagc.edu/blog/how-looking-at-art-can-help-your-brain.