Is creating art a basic need? We would have all felt the need to express passing thoughts or deeply ingrained worries in ways other than words. But you don’t have to be an expert artist, or to have perfectly mastered a certain artistic discipline, to get started. Simple observations, or in fact an artistic gesture of any kind, are means of manifesting these needs, therefore putting us in control of our own well-being.
Scientists, therapists, philosophers and many well-informed professionals have sought to prove art as an important role in dictating our moods. Thus, many have devoted their research to the meticulous study of the interdependencies between art and our health, both physical and mental. Artsper is now presenting the results of these studies to help you understand how art has a positive influence on individuals.
I. Contemplating to free oneself
The psychosomatics reactions observed in an individual observing a work of art positively reinforce the highly redemptive power of art. Indeed, seeing a painting, sculpture or a photograph, much like watching a film or listening to a podcast, brings us a feeling of contentment and short-term satisfaction, which is simply known as pleasure. Sometimes resembling an explosion of confused feelings and sensations, our body and mind experience an inner contentment. This is where the so-called reward circuit comes into play.
Indeed, when we see a work we like, the ventral tegmental area, composed of a group of neurons located in the centre of the brain, starts to produce dopamine and endogenous opiates. A perfect symbiosis of neurotransmitters and painkillers which triggers a feeling of extreme pleasure in the individual. This psychosomatic response is particularly recurrent in visual art fields such as traditional plastic arts, photography or cinema. Scientific experiments have looked into this subject and have observed the physiological consequences that animate an individual when faced with a work he appreciates. The results speak for themselves! Stress tends to diminish, due to a deceleration in cortisol production. In addition, the heartbeat becomes more moderate and the muscles relax.
Did you know that abstract art has a positive cognitive influence on people? Indeed, unlike figurative art, abstract art underlines and emphasises parts of the real world without trying to recreate them. The artist creates a dialogue through emulation, presenting a reality that is his own. Through forms and colours that he feels, he expresses his relationship with reality, offering a personal dynamic. Abstract art allows us free rein in our interpretations and reactions, but it can equally upset and disconcert us. We are then left confused due to a mass of different signals that are foreign to us. Paradoxically, a feeling of understanding and alignment then sets in. Abstraction ultimately reassures us and allows unexpected thoughts to take shape.
II. Art as a means of collective and individual exchange
Once it is exposed to the gaze of the general masses, art tends to bring together and start a dialogue between the different people who take the step towards observing it. While some prefer to circulate an exhibition space alone, the majority go there accompanied by close friends and family. A survey carried out by the Public Policy Department of the Directorate General of Heritage, looked into the proportion of visitors in all of France's national museums. Entitled "Listening to Visitors", the study confirms that more than 50% of visitors to an exhibition choose to go there accompanied by others. While around 35% opted for a family visit, only the remaining 15% opted for solo visits.
Through the high rate of group visits, we can see a certain willingness to share experiences and to discuss the plurality of our interpretations. Going to an exhibition is a way of seeking human contact. It is an opportunity to compare our reactions, but also to grasp what we are looking for (appeasement, surprise, passion, beauty, spirituality...). Museums of fine arts, society and civilisation or museums of architecture and decorative arts, include more visits alone or between adults (respectively from 20 to 25% and 63 to 68%). On the one hand, art brings people together, cocooning them in a dynamic of exchange and common understanding. On the other hand, it is a real springboard for self reflection, offering solitary visitors a silent introspection, an experiment during their momentary freedom.
III. Art influences human behaviour
Art as catharsis
According to Aristotle, catharsis (from the ancient Greek, "purification") is the purification of the soul. This is experienced by every spectator during a dramatic performance. More commonly though, this term defines a therapeutic method that provokes an emotional crisis in a subject that is so strong, it creates a solution to the problem on its own.
Art is a real outlet and an integral part of catharsis. Sigmund Freud invented the psychoanalytical concept of "sublimation" to represent this subsidiary form of deliverance of the individual through art. He explains that artistic realisation in all its forms is a means for the artist to transform his impulses, considered "inferior", towards something morally or spiritually higher. By working on socially valued objects, such as works of art, the individual transfers the energy of his or her impulses. Thus, whether we paint a canvas representing the suffering or animosity within us, or drown it in empathy and identification, we always benefit from this release process. It is a way of emptying our emotional sphere.
Art as an intellectual lever
The development of the human brain after birth is a particularly long process. This period of immaturity and dependence on adults promotes learning. It is interesting to observe the impact of art exhibitions on children's brain systems. For example, even before a child is born, the regular perception of musical notes helps with the proper development of the fetus. In addition, music and singing both calm children and adults prone to behavioural problems. By sharpening their attention and their nervous systems, these disciplines stand out as the true drivers of people’s mental health.
Stimulating children's brains through various artistic manifestations such as painting, for example, develops and intensifies surprising cerebral functions. These activities play on attention, memory and spatial representation. In general, encouraging children and adolescents to get to know and express themselves through drawing, the performing arts or music tends to give them automatic social integration, contributes to the balance of their well-being and to a certain aversion to violence and aggression.
IV. The therapeutic properties of art on the individual
Art, a positive effect on health
Art can prove to be a real means of healing or relieving certain physical, neurological and mental behaviours. A report presented by WHO confirms a positive correlation between various artistic activities and human health. When analysing the benefits of visual arts, performing arts, culture, literature and online arts on several patients with different pathologies, the conclusion remains the same: art heals.
Art limits side effects
Encouraging art in a daily life weakened by a disease can help patients regain a taste for experiencing and sharing life with others. It is also a means of awakening their bodies and engaging their motor skills again. This is what we observe when we gradually introduce dance to people suffering from Parkinson's disease (a chronic degenerative neurological disease). The results are impressive, especially in children: lower anxiety levels, greater tolerance for pain and lower blood pressure.
Playing music or offering patients the opportunity to take part in various artistic productions also limits the side effects of cancer treatments. These include drowsiness, lack of appetite, shortness of breath and nausea.
Art and mental health
Some health care institutions or professionals choose to offer artistic activities to their patients suffering from mental or chronic illness, such as diabetes or depression. This is a way of bolstering or reinforcing therapeutic protocols. An option chosen by the Association des Médecins Francophones du Canada (MFDC). Pioneers in the birth of prescription art, these doctors have been dedicated to this cause since November 2018, prescribing their patients free visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Hélène Boyer, Vice-President of the MFDC explains it as follows: "We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being. (...) When we look at a work of art, our attention is focused on the work and we forget our suffering and our anxieties".
When talking about the relationship between art and the mental health of one’ s self, we inevitably come to consider the genesis of outsider art. This branch of art was born in the second half of the 19th century, a period in which society became increasingly interested in the artistic achievements of marginalized people. As a result, doctors noticed the close interaction between their mentally ill patients and their need for artistic expression. The painter Jean Dubuffet therefore refers to outsider art as “both the art of the mad and that of outcasts of all kinds”. An art that can only be perceived in the creations of the insane, of prisoners, or of people considered eccentric, alone, or simply self-taught. Outsider art is this vivid art, free of any cultural, intellectual or artistic pretension. It is a personal and intimate art, which in no way aims to heal its author, but which, like a vital need, simply accompanies their daily life.
Another interesting example of psychological repair through art was found in the work developed by Christine Dietsch (a nurse and art therapist) and Pascale Amiel-Masse (a psychologist). By allowing two patients from a medical-psychological centre to create a fresco on one of the hospital walls, these two women explain throughout a clinical report, how the creative investment and artistic collaboration gradually improved their understanding of the outside world. Is this perhaps an example to follow?
Museum visit authorized for therapeutic purposes, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada
With convincing psychological responses, a true instrument of introspection or therapeutic catalyst, art undeniably participates in the well-being of people. Thanks to the plurality of potential interpretations and the individual sensations it develops and transmits in each one of us, art acts as a rehabilitation aid. Visual arts, performing arts, music and so many other disciplines are proven remedies against loneliness, shyness, illness and contribute to spreading a sense of well-being to everyone. All the more reason to let your artistic soul express itself!