Written by Helen Frazer
We’ve known for millenia that art is can be a powerful tool for healing. However, precisely how this healing works is hard to define in scientific terms. As a consequence, art therapy has been rather left on the periphery of the therapeutic disciplines – used generally inconjunction with or as a tangential aspect of other, more scientifically understood therapies. Now, however, scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are beginning to make inroads towards discovering what, precisely, is occurring within our brains when we make and view art. Why IS art so profoundly healing? Why does it affect us in the way that it does? And how can we use it to enhance our own wellbeing?
Art As Therapy
We already know through personal experience that the creation of art can be very therapeutic. Those who have suffered mental trauma during combat will frequently have problems including (but not limited to) processing their problems, expressing their pain, and communicating with the outer world at large. Art can help with all of these issues, and more. A great many charities and veterans’ organizations utilize the healing power of art to help suffering individuals to heal their psyches. Art therapy helps people to get thoughts and experiences which may be ‘stuck’ on endless repeat out of their heads and into physically expressed form. The baggage which is cluttering up the unconscious is similarly incorporated into the art, leaving the sufferer with a clear mind (or so the theory runs). What is more, the creation of art gives those who may be feeling worthless a skill, and something to live for. After traumatic combat experiences, this can be invaluable.
The Neuroscience Of Experiencing Art
Scientists have for a while been pondering the neurobiology of art. Art is a perplexing problem, scientifically speaking. It affects us all differently – suggesting that our opinions of it are based upon considered individual experience – but there does appear to be a ‘gut reaction’ component to art-viewing, meaning that the phenomenon cannot be put down entirely to experiential differences. What happens when we view art, and why do we react in different ways to different pieces? Why do some people sob at music which leaves others cold? Why does your mother hate that painting you’ve hung in your hall? Why do you cringe at your friends’ aesthetic choices? Well, scientists are not entirely sure – but they’re having a damn good crack at finding out.
Researchers all over the world are gathering information from brainwave measurements, brain scans, neural probes and many more sources to try and find the common factor which may unlock the mystery of art’s effect upon the psyche. We do know that the brain decides incredibly fast (faster even than our consciousness realizes) whether or not it likes a piece of art (much the same phenomenon, interestingly, can be observed when the brain encounters new people). And while the brain can change its judgement, to do so requires a degree of considered exposure combined with positive associations. We also know that different kinds of art light up different portions of the brain. A painting or sculpture with plenty of dynamic, swirly or diagonal lines will wake up the brain’s visual motor cortex (which deals with movement). A painting which resembles a sad face will bring out an empathetic response in our minds. And looking at a piece of art we enjoy (unsurprisingly) brings the brain’s reward circuits to life.
Although we do not yet quite understand why our brains respond in the way that they do when viewing art, it is clear that our minds are very engaged with it. If they’re this engaged with simply appreciating art, it stands to reason that they can be powerfully transformed and healed through the even more intense process of creating it.
Art And The Soul
But do the precise neurobiological mechanisms involved in art creation and appreciation really matter? We know – and have known since the first shamans encouraged their patients to draw on rocks – that art is good for the soul. Will trying to pinpoint, analyse, and break down its effects into scientifically delineated components really make a difference to this essential knowledge? Will it enable the scientific community to ‘tap into’ our creative, healing mechanisms and help more suffering people? Or will it simply reduce art into something cold and clinical – something which art currently is absolutely and profoundly not? The answer to this no doubt depends on what (if anything) the scientists discover. In the meantime, we must continue to create, to heal, and to teach others through art.
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Founder and CEO of The Graffiti of War Project, Doc is a decorated combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he was a combat medic with the 54th Engineer Battalion. He is currently the a journalist for Force 12 Media and is featured weekly on SOFREP.com. Docas been featured in numerous media outlets such as Wired.com, Maxim.com and BusinessInsider.com. For more information about Jaeson “Doc” Parsons click HERE or send him an EMAIL.