In the recently published book, L’art Qui Guérit (or 'Art That Heals'), French neuroscientist, author, and musician Pierre Lemarquis examines the neurological benefits of art for both viewer and creator: "Art sculpts and caresses our brain by modifying its functioning". Having previously studied the cognitive and emotional impact of music on Alzheimer's and stroke victims, Lemarquis became interested in whether the same connections and associations were true of visual art:
"Research shows that the creative act of cutting stone by hand has the same effect on the brain as playing the piano. Art promotes resilience. Art is a uterus that nourishes us, regenerates us and nurses us through trauma."
The emerging field of study examined by Lemarquis in L’art Qui Guérit is called neuroaesthetics, and has attracted scholars from diverse disciplines, including art history, neuroscience, and psychology. Neuroaesthetics aims to explain and understand how aesthetic experiences can impact us at a neurological level. While the experience of art and beauty is subjective, the practical benefits of creating and viewing art are not. Neuroaesthetics is just one of many disciplines demonstrating the immense value of art in supporting physical and mental well-being.
From the origin of neuroaesthetics to a case study on community arts initiative Workman Arts, this blog will examine how art can facilitate healing. To gain insight into how this growing body of research can be practically applied in an organizational setting, we spoke to Sara Kelly, the Communications and Development Manager at Workman Arts.
Workman Arts is a multidisciplinary arts organization that promotes a greater understanding of mental health and addiction issues through creation and presentation. Founded in 1987 in Toronto, the organization supports artists living with mental health and addiction issues through peer-to-peer arts education, public presentations and partnerships with the broader arts community. Until May 23rd at 9:00PM EST, every Horangi print sale by Jieun June Kim will donate 50% of all sales to Workman Arts. Click here to purchase.
THE POWER OF ART
Neuroaesthetics is a new area of study, only receiving its formal definition in 2002. However, the idea that engaging with artistic activities—whether as a participant or viewer—can enhance your mood, emotions, and other psychological states is not a new one. Aristotle described the sensation of catharsis as a spectator in a theatrical performance (catharsis, in this context, was the purification or purgation of the emotions, especially pity and fear, primarily through art). Immanuel Kant believed that the definition of fine art was “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication”.
As an organization responsible for groundbreaking events like Rendezvous with Madness (the largest mental health festival in the world), and Being Scene, it is clear that arts inherent ability to elicit powerful emotions in the viewer is not lost on Workman Arts:
"Art has a unique ability to help folks put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The power of an image, a film, a book, a play or a piece of music to allow someone to visualize what it’s like to live a different sort of life is undeniable. The arts offer a window into the lived experiences of mental health and substance use challenges, as well as an access point into conversation, understanding, and building empathy for the lived experiences of others."
While there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence to support art’s impact on the viewer/creator, neuroaesthetics reveals what is actually happening on a neurological level. According to Lemarquis, neural networks are formed to achieve heightened states of connectivity. In other words, art can physically ‘caress’ and even ‘sculpt’ our brains. So, when we feel ‘moved’ by a piece of art, that is actually what is happening.
Some of the hormones and neurotransmitters that are activated when creating and viewing art are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Dopamine is activated when you feel pleasure, which includes dancing, cuddling, eating, and spending time with loved ones. Serotonin can help regulate your mood, helping you feel more focused, emotionally stable, happy and calm. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. Oxytocin is known for eliciting feelings of love, trust, and social connection. All of the above-mentioned hormones can aid in treating mental illness, memory loss, and illnesses associated with stress. In an interview with Artnet, Lemarquis explained: “Will it cure them? Maybe not, but it will allow them to better manage their illness, and once they can manage it better, they’re on the road to recovery.” In adding to Lemarquis' work, a study published by the World Health Organization, which examined over 900 different publications over a 19-year period, also examines the ultimate role that art plays in improving health and wellbeing. The report found evidence from a wide variety of disciplinary approaches and methodologies for the potential value of the arts in contributing to core determinants of health, finding that it can play a critical role in: - health promotion
- helping to prevent the onset of mental illness and age-related physical decline
- supporting the treatment or management of mental illness, noncommunicable diseases and neurological disorders
- assisting in acute and end-of-life care Not only does the report offer validation in support of the arts, but new solutions for medical professionals. The goal of the report was to provide a basis for new global policies, explaining that “the examples cited show ways in which the arts can tackle complex health challenges such as diabetes, obesity and mental illness.” One of the organizations that has been facilitating meaningful art-making opportunities for underserved populations for almost 35 years is Workman Arts.
Workman Arts is a multi-disciplinary arts organization that recognizes that struggling with mental health/substance use challenges can be a major hinderance for individuals interested in developing their artistic practice. Sara Kelly, the Communications and Development Manager at Workman Arts, explains that this particular demographic may have missed key opportunities to professionalize their artistic practice–a gap that the organization tries to fill. Workman Arts is a place where people "can work on their craft and build their careers in a supportive peer environment, and create artwork on any theme or subject they want to". The organization provides access to anyone who may feel excluded from mainstream arts organizations:
"Artists can express their passions and ideas in an accepting and inclusive environment, and also benefit from opportunities to share their work with the public. Engaging in an art practice that matters and holds value to an individual within a supportive group setting can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, which in turn can help facilitate healing."
Of course, beyond facilitating meaningful art making opportunities, Workman Arts also recognizes the role that community plays in facilitating healing. As outlined by the World Health Organization, community participation is a vital element of a human rights-based approach to health. Community participation, especially for underserved groups, is a way of optimizing interventions to improve health.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have all become acutely aware of the psychological impact of a loss of community/sense of belonging. Sara Kelly explains that social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of poor mental health outcomes, and that increasing the quality and quantity of community connections can have beneficial effects on those living with mental health challenges by creating a sense of belonging, improved relationships, a sense of purpose and increased self-confidence.
"Belonging to a community can improve the quality and quantity of social connections, aid in developing social skills, increase interaction and expand social networks."
Workman Arts is a place where artists can work, build community and advance their careers in an understanding environment that supports, but does not define them by their mental health issues. The organization aims to reduce the prevalence of social isolation in individuals with lived experience of mental health issues by creating opportunities to build lasting social connections through meaningful engagement outside of the mainstream mental health system. Classes, open studio hours, art showcases, networking and outreach events provide opportunities for participants to connect with peers, artist-instructors and professionals in the field. Their programs enable more people living with mental illness/addictions to fully participate. Over time, the quality and quantity of social connections are positively impacted and social networks improve.