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Art and mental health

A DfE Community Learning | Mental Health Research site 2015-17

There’s been abundant evidence that yoga and meditation have positive effects on physical and mental health; however, there has also been some scientific research into the effects of art on the human brain. Even in the past, before the modern neuroscience, artists were creating works to inspire people. Today’s complex brain imaging scans can show how both observing and creating art stimulate pleasure centres in the brain while at the same time increasing blood flow by up to 10% in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This, in turn, leads to an elevated sense of wellbeing and better emotional health.

Christopher Tyler, director of the Smith–Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center, says that

‘art accesses some of the most advanced processes of human intuitive analysis and expressivity.’

He claims that ‘mirror neurons’ fire both when a person acts, i.e. produces a work of art, and when he or she observes art produced by themselves or others. This sense of being ‘drawn into’ a work of art is called ‘embodied cognition’ and it stimulates a feeling of wellbeing and inspiration.

Artists have the ability to show us completely new worlds, which are often the result of their imagination; however, almost each one of us lived like an artist as a child and we still have the ability to bring back this powerful form of self-expression and healing, that is, if we allow ourselves to access it again.

There’s scientific evidence that

‘making art activates the whole brain and fosters integration of emotional, cognitive and sensory processes.’ (from Upliftconnect website)

The Visionary Art movement, which started in New York, leads on the idea that ‘creativity may be one of the greatest things about being human and art could be a great teacher for us on the life journey.’

Jacob Devaney, Founder and director of ‘Culture Collective’, says that

’art can heal us, inspire us and alter our brain chemistry, leaving us filled with love and inspiration’.

For the past three years, London Arts in Health Forum (LAHF) has been working with colleagues from across England to develop the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing. The Alliance has developed a Charter for Arts and Health, is liaising with Government to embed arts in health practice and is developing a number of media promotions to raise the profile of arts in health practice. (Everything you need to know about the National Alliance can be found here w: www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk)

In the April 2017 edition of the LAHD newsletter, Mark Titchner, an artist, provides a balancing view:

“Are we in danger of co-opting the role that the arts can play in our lives, perhaps oversimplifying it into a health outcome or, worse still, a money-saving exercise? Aren’t we missing the point?”

In other words, we cannot replace medical interventions with paint and canvas or vice versa, but if we think holistically, a lot can be achieved. Lee, an artist exhibiting in the Bethlem Gallery (Thinking Society: Art and Social Psychiatry), based in the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, describes his ‘triangle of wellbeing’ as his art, medication and psychological therapies; in other words, take one of them away, and he does not feel well.

For Beth Elliot, one of the bloggers on the LAHF website, both the arts and the sciences are practices that ignite the imagination, creativity and curiosity. They are ‘bold, experimental, reflective and boundless’. They help us question, re-asses, problem solve, feel better, build mental resilience, learn and survive.

Based on the neuroscientific research so far, it seems that viewing and, especially, producing art helps to address the imbalances, problems and ills that exist within our individual and collective experiences. It is a way of relating to and making sense of ourselves, each other, and the world around us, which is a good starting point for attaining better mental and emotional health.

In the next blog, I’ll share the experiences of the Ealing project art tutor of teaching art to adults with mild to moderate mental health problems.


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andrew martyn sugars's picture

hi Ljiljana

i've really enjoyed reading this post.  i really get a sense that you're saying holistic and individual for journey to improved mental health.  over time also seems to be important.

a really insightful and informative blog post.



Linda Buckland's picture

Hello Ljijana,

I've just come across your blog which I found really interesting and inspiring.  I think many of  us are inherently aware of the power of art - either in creating or observing it - on wellbeing and I found reading the information you have provided puts some weight behind the gut feeling.  From my own experience I have found that creative classes are real levellers and inspire learners to continue at home and also apply to take part in further courses.

Many of our learners have come to classes with no confidence  in themselves and especially none in their ability to be creative. The amazement and confidence they find once they have made something is truly incredible and provides them with feelings of self-efficacy and motivation.

I look forward to delving further into this area, thank you for bringing it to our attention.

Lin. :-)