GEM OF ZEN #38
The Healing Power of Visual Arts
Today I warmly welcome Alexander Grosse to the blog. Alexander guest posts on a topic of which he has much experience and on a topic which I can very much relate to and that is close to my heart. Alexander is an artist and art blogger. You’ll find links where you can connect with him in his bio at the end of this post. In today’s post Alexander shares with us his thoughts on the healing powers of visual arts and how they can be powerful medicine for the mind and body. Please enjoy!
If you’re new to Write of the Middle’s ‘Gems of Zen’ series you can see all previous 37 Gems of Zen posts here. If you’d like to contribute your very own Gem of Zen, I’d love to hear from you! It might be helpful to have a read of About Gems of Zen and How to Submit a Featured Guest Post. You might also like to have a look through some of the previous Gems of Zen posts so that you can see you don’t need to be an expert on anything to participate in this series.
Ciao for now,
The Healing Power of Visual Arts – Powerful Medicine for Body and Mind
Have you ever noticed coming out of an art museum being in a splendid mood? Or hanging that new painting in your home and the entire atmosphere feels so much more comfortable? Did some random scribbling on a piece of paper while on the phone give you some kind of satisfaction? These situations all point to recent findings in the fields of neuroaesthetics and art psychology showing that art experiences directly affect a person’s mood, promoting health and well-being.
Strongly underestimated but increasingly studied scientifically is the healing power of visual arts. Whether you are appreciating a wall painting or getting involved in creating yourself, research suggests that art has powerful healing properties regardless of previous art experiences. Engaging with colours, shapes, forms, and their compositions has a positive impact on your health and brain function. This knowledge is applied in various areas, including interior design, the medical field, art therapy, marketing, and communications.
Art Healing in History: The Golden Ratio
By no means are theories about the healing power of art only a modern phenomenon. Ancient Greece developed mathematical knowledge about the “Golden Ratio”, which was applied in architecture and fine arts. This balanced proportion was believed to influence the human psyche positively: By exposing oneself to external harmony, the inner wellbeing of the viewer was meant to be uplifted. Revived during the Renaissance, the Golden Ratio is still a guiding principle for designers and artists today.
Art and the Nervous System
The emerging discipline of neuroaesthetics is concerned with understanding the biological impact of aesthetic experiences. It draws from several areas of cognitive neuroscience, such as the science of aesthetics, semantics, emotion, perception, and decision making. Aesthetic encounters are ubiquitous in everyday life so that the exploration of their biological implications can widen our understanding of behaviour and health-related questions decisively.
A large body of empirical studies in the field of art psychology from the last two decades suggests that aesthetic experiences related to art can improve a person’s health. It was shown that both creating and appreciating art changes the brain wave patterns, the nervous system, and emotions. When looking at a stimulating piece of art, levels of the hormone serotonin rise, stabilizing your mood, feelings, and increasing happiness. This is especially the case when abstract art is involved. The hormone has an impact on the functioning of the entire body and enables brain cells to interact with other cells of the nervous system, resulting in a feeling of satisfaction and happiness.
Likewise, the act of creating art has powerful healing properties. In a study published in the journal Art Therapy, three-quarters of the participants showed reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol after an art-creating session. One simple explanation is that the act of producing art forges a connection between mind and body. Unlike meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, or exercise, which works on the body, art-creation involves both mind and body and promotes holistic healing.
As a hybrid field influenced by the disciplines of fine art and psychology, art therapy makes use of the creative process or third-party artwork to help clients develop self-awareness, address unresolved emotional conflicts, explore emotions, and raise self-esteem. For art therapy to be successful, neither artistic experience nor talent is necessary, and any individual seeking help may benefit from art therapy. People struggling with a wide array of issues can achieve positive results, among them clients facing problems with anxiety, depression, substance dependency, post traumatic stress, or eating disorders.
Colours and the Nervous System
Of special importance in the concept of art psychology is the usage of colours. Colour psychology, also known as chroma therapy, examines the effects of colours on the mood of people and is widely applied in many areas such as marketing and the medical field. Studies suggest that colours can have an impact on the nervous system, causing changes in mood such as promoting peace and calm.
Although scientific research in this area is still in its infant stages, it is widely made use of in design and the therapeutical context. Yellow being bright and cheerful is believed to inspire creativity; green is considered restful, symbolizing renewal and growth; blue is said to increase peacefulness and has even been proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate; red can strengthen vitality and energy, while orange radiates warmth and a sense of joy. Accordingly, colour is a major consideration for art therapists as well. They may instruct their clients to use a certain colour of paint that will bring out their issues or help them to cope with them. Or they leave the colour choice to the client and simply observe what colours they choose.
Given the extensive impact that pictures and art-creation can have on our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, it’s worth considering surrounding us with art we like or getting involved in producing art ourselves. Even if there is already good evidence about the benefits of aesthetic experiences, further research into the fascinating world of neuroaesthetics will be necessary. There is still a lot we don’t know about the interconnections of aesthetics and the brain, and how they relate in the context of art psychology.
Sources and recommended reading:
Ellen Winner (2018). How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration
George Mather (2013). The Psychology of Visual Art: Eye, Brain and Art
Eric Kandel (2016). Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures
Eric Kandel (2012). The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
Anjan Chatterjee (2013). The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art
Alexander is an art blogger and artist. He’s been fascinated with art and painting since early childhood and went on to study art history in Frankfurt, where he focused on ancient Greek and modern European art. After struggling with mental health issues, going through many sessions of art therapy, he decided to start painting himself and is an active artist today. He loves sharing his art history insights and his own experiences with art therapy.
To connect with Alexander, here’s where you can find him: