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Art, the brain and the mind

Creativity takes courage.

Henri Matisse

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

– Pablo Picasso

Art in some form or other has existed from the Palaeolithic period, and as long as humans have existed, we have been attracted by and fascinated by it. Art affects society by its power to change opinions and translate human experiences. It is a repository of our collective memory.

But it is the effects that art has on the mind and brain that truly deserve admiration. Art has been shown to have an impact on the brain by causing an actual increase in the levels of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters.

Humans have two types of skills — physical and cognitive. Neurosciences show that even the simple act of drawing can improve our cognitive and higher cerebral functions. The essence of art is its perceptibly imaginary nature, which reflects actual experiences, feelings and sentiments. The mind being the target behind the idea of art as therapy, the same art can purify our sensual world through artistic catharsis-on-canvas, which could even ‘correct’ some psychological dispositions.

Art therapy is one of the newer technologies in the tool kit of psychiatric treatment; some call it ‘person-centred’. The essence of art is its perceptibly imaginary nature, which reflects actual experiences, feelings and sentiments. And the mind being the target behind the idea of art as therapy, the same art can purify our sensual world through an artistic catharsis-on-canvas which could even ‘correct’ some of our psychological dispositions.

Because the benefits of such therapies in some cases are seen to outweigh the advantages of treatments with pills alone, today they have become part of some mental health treatments. The American Art Therapy Association describes it as using “the creative processes of art-making, to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being in individuals of all ages.” Such therapy involves “creative processes involved in artistic self-expression which helps people to resolve conflicts, develop interpersonal skills, manage behaviour, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, self -awareness and achieve insight.”

Healing strategies

When psychiatrists and psychologists found that those with mental health issues often express their emotions through art and drawings, such therapies started evolving into healing strategies. Today they are even used in mental health assessments of trauma survivors and victims of abuse.

When mental illness and its treatment face considerable stigma in society and when only a small percentage of the population that would benefit from treatment actually receive it, it is unwise to ignore the therapeutic value of art, especially when there are those who do not wish to take medicines although they may benefit from them. And there are others who have trouble finding the right pharmaceutical formulae. Although some may dismiss art as frivolous, more and more people are beginning to understand the role it plays in emotional well-being.

Human beings have an inordinate capacity to be creative but there is also great variability. Some are hardly creative. The creative energies of Picasso, Cezanne, Monet and others, including the likes of Newton and Einstein, were exceptional.

Art is also a symbolic communication system practised only by humans and it may have helped us in creating social cohesion and ensuring survival itself.

New prescription

In November 2018, the British Health Secretary unveiled an initiative that might soon enable doctors in the U.K. to prescribe art, music, dance and even singing lessons as ‘treatment’ for a variety of ailments, from some forms of dementia and early psychosis to various respiratory conditions. This could mean that in the future, with this form of ‘social prescribing’ in the U.K. and other countries that had for decades fostered a culture of reliance on antidepressant pills to ease the dyphoria associated with illnesses, could find patients enrolling for dance and singing lessons.

In order to prevent any misuse of the system, the U.K. is aiming to create a National Academy for Social Prescribing to ensure that doctors only refer suitable patients for art as treatment. The King’s Fund, an independent charity that works to improve health and social care in England, says more should be done for prevention, and that social prescribing can help combat over-medicalistion.

Although we tend to think of art as a luxury, art tends to give rise to feelings of pleasure, which in turn become the personification of hope. Life itself is art and it is because life is sacred that art that comes from within, rather than from the ego, is also sacred. Hence art speaks more eloquently than a thousand spoken words and has the potential to become a messenger of love.

Even when art is beneficial, comforting, pleasurable and healing, all art is not art because it should never be Exitus acta probat (the end justifies the means). And because art is to do with perceptions, it is not always very easy to distinguish good art from bad art.

The author was a psychiatrist in the U.K. specialising in stress, anxiety and depression. Email:

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 2:58:12 PM |

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