Plenty of statistics speak to our stress levels in modern life, with Americans ranking as some of the most stressed out in the world, according to the American Institute of Stress (seriously?) with the disquieting tagline of, “If Life Were Easy They Would Have Asked For Volunteers.” Indeed, the myriad websites offering stress reduction solutions are testimony to our angst.
But now art, an age-old hobby of human cultures, has emerged as an essential — not frivolous — aspect of health. It’s no accident that Andrea Reese — featured in a Stress Free Now podcast describing how to reinvent happiness — is a visual and performing artist. Furthermore, art therapy has become a legit discipline with practitioners with a range of backgrounds achieving success in treating patients for illnesses as diverse as autism, eating disorders, trauma, and memory loss. See HERE.
“You don’t need to be a brain scientist to understand that the arts have physiological, psychological, and spiritual benefits,” says neuroaestheticist Susan Magsamen. But brain scientists are substantiating what artists and art appreciators already know from experience. Magsamen and coauthor Ivy Ross just published a book about Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us that’s coming out this month, in which Magsamen purports that “Art can create new neuropathways in the brain because this happens through sensorial experience.”
The American Congress of Rehabilitative Medicine corroborates with its Arts & Neuroscience Networking Group whose primary reason for existing is to “bring together this cutting-edge research that’s happening in the arts and neuroscience and how that can be clinically applied to our patients.”
Like a 2016 study showing reduced cortisol levels in healthy adults after a 45 minute art-making session; a 2021 study showing reduced glucose levels in diabetics who participated in art therapy; and even a 2022 study finding a statistically significant different in well-being after people played an online coloring game during the pandemic.
These days, scientists are teasing out which areas of the brain participate in human perception of art. Recent studies report that the experience of artistic beauty correlates with decodable patterns of activity in visual areas. Art representing human faces stimulates neural activity in a number of brain areas.
Interestingly, only faces ranked as beautiful fired up the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to play a role in personality characteristics like reasoning and emotion. Abstract art must rank on the beauty scale because it also fires up the medial frontal cortex to interpret colors and lines, even in the absence of recognizable images.
So, if you’re feeling artsy, go for it. Doodle, paint, write, color, cut, paste, and trust that it’s rewarding for our brains and bodies, and perhaps even grounded in the evolutionary framework of sorting out our feelings and preparing us to make decisions.