Art: Your Daily Dose of Therapy
One of my favorite travel hosts, Burt Wolf, filmed an episode entitled, “Visiting a Great Museum Can Reduce Stress.” In the twenty-five minute program, Wolf discusses the research behind the art as a therapy. In London, at the University of Westminster, a team of researchers invited office workers to use their lunch hour touring the Gillmore Art Gallery. Their goal was to show how, when you are under a decent amount of stress, looking at art can reduce stress. Cortisol, which helps regulate blood pressure, your immune system, and how you store energy, was used as the determining factor. The higher your stress level, the higher your cortisol level will be. When the office workers arrived at the museum, their cortisol levels were tested. After walking around and viewing the art, their cortisol levels were retaken. The result? The cortisol levels of the office workers significantly decreased when they were done looking at the art. Amazing! Art has such a powerful effect on our lives, and we often do not even realize it.
Later in the episode, Wolf talks with painter Jan Dilenschneider, who has a deep understanding of art and its connection to emotions and well-being. She mentioned that her mother was also a painter and would often discuss art with her and her sister. She was never encouraged to paint; instead, she picked up the habit through availability and side discussions. She credits what she learned in her home as a way into art. Most historians cite her work as Impressionistic, but she disagrees. She feels her work is more Expressionistic. The Expressionism Art Movement began in the early 20th Century when artists were showing how they felt—painting their viewpoint of a subject. For Dilenschneider, she wanted her viewers to fall in love with nature—to feel what she was feeling to bring awareness to the negative changes affecting ecology. SHe didn’t want people to look at a painting of weeds and thing, “Oh, these are just weeds.” Instead, she wanted people to see that these weeds have a positive effect on the environment and how, without them, many animal populations would suffer.
When it comes to art and the brain, several research studies have all come to the same conclusion: art has a positive effect on the brain, most notably with our feelings and emotions. The putamen and the anterior insular areas have been shown on brain imaging scans as the areas that are most sensitive to art. The putamen helps with the feeling of reward, while the anterior insular helps with pleasant emotions. While researchers have found that looking at art has some benefits on emotion, they have found that the most benefits come from those who create art. Two sets of groups were studied: the first group looked at works of art but didn’t create anything. The second group not only looked at art but also created art pieces. Both groups had brain scans completed before and after the study. The result? The brain scans of the group that viewed and created art showed an increase in positive brain activity and an improvement in their sense of well-being. Researchers concluded that it doesn’t matter what type of art you create, whether it be a painting, a sculpture, or even a photograph. What matters is that you are creating something. Mood and stress levels can all be reduced when creating a work of art. Studies have also shown that those who actively create art have lower levels of stress and depression.
A portion of the episode also focused on art to create a sense of positive identity. Wolf mentioned that when a person has a chronic disease, they often feel like they can no long er contribute to everyday life. According to the American Public Health Association, art can be a refuge for chronic diseases. It allowed patients to express themselves through images rather than words. When creating art, there are four well-defined effects:
(*) Patients focused more on the positive aspects of life, which led them to think less about their chronic illness.
(*) Art helped to increase a feeling of self-worth and value to society.
(*) Patients viewed the world differently and felt that there was more to life than just their illness.
(*) Art helped patients express their feeling symbolically.
One research study found that just having one simple image of a landscape in a hospital room helped create more positivity in the patient’s life. The increase in positivity resulted in fewer patients needing to be treated with narcotics. It also helped to shorten their hospital stay.
When people create art, they get into a zone—they focus only on the work they are creating. Dilenschneider stated that when she paints, she gets into a flow— she concentrates solely on her painting. Nothing else consumes her mind at that moment; she is in a state of tranquility. Wolf mentioned that he had heard that same response from athletes, dancers, actors, and photographers.
To get into your creative brain, Dilenschneider stated that you need to be somewhat stress-free, relaxed, and happy. Using inductive reasoning also helps create amazing works of art because it is your inductive reasoning that activates your creative brain. That is why most good ideas come from those who are doing relaxing actions—walking, sitting in the sun, taking a shower—because their inductive reasoning is activating their creative brain.
When people begin to create art, they become connected to other people who also create art. Think about painting clubs or photo clubs. You are making art, and so are the other members of your club or group. You share a common interest, which, in turn, gives you a sense of belonging. That feeling of belonging also improves your mood and decreases your stress levels because you begin to feel important and valued.
Wolf and Dilenschneider hit on many parts that I can relate to as a photographer. When I am out taking pictures, my main focus is only on what I am photographing. I get into a zone where I am only worried about how well my picture will come out. I have noticed that, during extreme stress and anxiety, it is harder to get into that zone and find those unique angles to capture. It is even harder to edit pictures when my mind is not completely clear or relaxed enough. Additionally, and as Dilenschneider stated, I create art as a way to express what I see. My two primary purposes of taking pictures are to (1) share what I see and (2) hear the feedback of what my viewers see. No two people can look at the same image and see the same thing. Our brains are wired to view art based upon on we feel about something.
When I was in high school, one of my friends had stated she wanted to major in Art Therapy in college. At the time, I didn’t know what to think about and wasn’t quite sure where she would go with it. However, looking at the research and seeing the positive effects art has on stress levels and mood, I feel it was the right choice for her to major. Our society lately has become stressful and future uncertain. Taking out a camera or a paintbrush and palette, or even a ball of yarn can help get us into a zone where we forget all the turbulence of everyday life. It helps us to stay connected while expressing our personal feelings. Art helps us and those we share it with stay happy and optimistic.
If you are interested in watching Burt Wolf’s full-length episode, you can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6hVRPN9I5I
To see some of Jan Dilenschneider’s paintings, visit her website: https://www.jmhdilenschneider.com
Thanks for reading!