What are the Benefits of Art on the Brain?
When humans created the earliest form of what we now know as art, it was hardly an easy thing. It was painstaking to extract dyes from plants and mud, and collect enough to paint with. And their canvas was as unsuited for the task as any: cave walls made of rough, solid stone. These cave paintings have served as a window for us gaze into the most primitive time in human history. In that primeval time, before the first civilisations or languages, art didn’t exist for its own sake.
There was a purpose to those fervid scrawls beyond simply making something beautiful. As far as we can tell, early man used cave paintings as way to tell the story of daring exploits, or to record a special moment in something more reliable than memory. Art appreciation certainly didn’t exist, nor would it for thousands of years. But since then, the meaning of art has taken on more meanings, shapes and forms than you could possibly imagine. And most crucially, art today doesn’t need to exist for any other reason than someone decided to make something cool.
But does art exist for anything beyond self-expression? Are there real benefits of art on the brain? There’s that vague, seemingly intangible rush of emotions you sometimes feel when looking at a particularly evocative piece. But does it have a real, physical form? That’s what a group of neuroscientists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg decided to find out when they studied the effects of viewing art on the brain.
How Does Art Change Your Brain?
As it turns out, there’s a lot more going on inside your brain when you view a work of art. By conducting fMRI scans on multiple subjects while they looked at artworks, the scientists came across some startling discoveries. It was always understood that art elicited feelings of positivity, a result of dopamine and other chemicals being released in the brain. But what they found is that looking at art for a certain amount of time actually created new neural connections in the brain, and enhanced connectivity between its different parts. These effects were limited, of course, but still not insignificant. They also noted a similar increase in psychological resilience, an individual’s ability to adapt to adverse circumstances. These are real, quantifiable benefits that art has on the brain. Hardly the vague suggestions of a ‘positive mental attitude’ that has no basis in science.
This in itself has major implications for the idea that viewing and appreciating art on a regular basis has a tangible effect on mental health. In fact, previous studies that found that exploring an art gallery for 35 minutes or more during a lunch break could bring down stress levels. Or another survey that showed increased levels of empathy and social tolerance among students who’d spent time at an art museum. The effects of spending an hour or two browsing a museum has been compared to going outdoors as a way to relieve mental exhaustion.
How Does Art Affect Children?
Art-related activities have an even more profound impact on children. When exposed to art museums at a young age, kids are able to absorb a lot more information than you’d think. Students who went on a museum tour were often able to remember classic works of art and the historical context they were painted in. Surveys found that children who’d visited museums were able to think more critically about art than their peers who hadn’t. When they wrote essays about their experience, the students who went on tour were seen to be more observant and made clear, unique associations.
In recent years, the benefits of art on the brain have even taken on a clinical form. Art therapy has become a popular method of treating and improving mental health in patients. They’ve been used on a range of mental disorders, from anxiety and depression, to PTSD and anorexia. The palliative effects of art have even helped cancer patients improve their quality of life.
If you have a good museum near you, consider going there and spending a couple of hours each week as a way to unwind. It’s a great way to spend time and it helps support museums that don’t see as much traffic these days. Take a few minutes with each piece, observe the art style. Maybe even read a little bit about the work and the artist behind it. Or if you don’t have a gallery that’s close enough, fill your own home with beautiful artworks that represent who you are. When you wake up in the morning, it’ll be like walking through a gallery curated specifically for you. Try it and see the results for yourself. You don’t have to take our word for it, take theirs.