Art and Mental Resilience
“Life without art would be a series of emails;
it would be quite boring.”
– Grayson Perry
Art in all its forms is a deeply personal and emotional experience for both artist and viewer. Creating art can be a meditative practice; simultaneously calming and mood-elevating. That may appear contradictory, but drawing/painting/colouring draws upon an ‘effort-driven-rewards system’ which has been identified in clinical research as regulating mood and alleviating anxiety and depression (see Malchidoi, 2015).
Some small-scale studies suggest making art alleviates depressive symptoms by allowing repressed emotions an avenue of expression and subsequent release. I have personally felt and witnessed in others this release through art: the shifting of stuck emotions through creativity. From a humble beginning in the cognitive process of thinking ‘what shall I draw/paint?’ a pathway is accessed to some other place. A place of yearning that lies deeper, a creativity and artistic calling in all of us that comes from a place beyond the ego and outside the conscious awareness, a place where all great masterpieces begin… IN THE HEART; IN THE SOUL.
After creating art I feel a sense of balance, satisfaction and calm even when the finished artwork itself is perhaps not my favourite thing. I don’t always like my art, but I enjoy the process of creating. Could the process of creating be the key to why making art is increasingly catching the eye of healthcare professionals, researchers and clinicians from the fields of psychology and neuroscience? The effort-driven-rewards system helps us deal with emotional challenges and the frontal cortex of the brain plays a major role. Moving the hands engages a larger area of the frontal cortex than moving the legs. Does this mean it’s better to make art to improve mental resilience rather than go for a run? Who knows! Key to the effort-driven-rewards system circuit is physical activity – using the hands – especially activities which produce tangible outcomes that can be seen, touched and enjoyed. In terms of mental resilience developing and engaging areas of the brain linked to where depression may ‘reside’ (the frontal cortex being the main contender) could give an explanation of why making art is beneficial to overall well-being.
Making art involves investment in a hands-on way, the outcome of that investment having meaning and giving pleasure to the creator. Viewing the finished artwork also has proven benefits; Professor Semir Zeki of University College London found that activity in the pleasure and reward centre of the brain can be seen to increase when viewing art, with the release of dopamine akin to that which occurs when we fall in love. Want to feel happier? Make art, then sit and look at it! Throughout history, vastly differing cultures have a commonality of using arts for communication, connection and healing. In this modern age of devices and online lives, are we being swept away from our true nature as creatives? Losing the harmony and healing of allowing our inner artist out?
Bolwerk (2014) and her research team were the first to demonstrate, using functional MRI scanning (fMRI), a statistically significant increase in psychological resilience following visual art production. Results of this research showed a rise of 3 points [P= 0.013* *significance at 0.05 for those who love the science and the stats!] Again, the effect on the frontal cortex took centre stage. Interestingly, this study made comparison of differences between actual production of visual artwork and ‘cognitive art evaluation’, with psychological resilience increasing significantly only in the hands of art makers.
Want more mental resilience to deal with emotional challenges? Get hands-on and make art is the emerging message; a message that I believe as humans we have always known and recently forgotten. The time to remember the healing power of making art is now. Gifting someone a piece of artwork you have personally created is, I believe, to truly gift a part of yourself- a part of your Heart and Soul. In creating that gift for someone else, you will be gifting yourself an enhanced sense of well-being and a renewed capacity to deal with the emotional challenges life brings. From the smallest doodle to the most ambitious artistic creations; making art feeds us and heals us.
Go make art!
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