Your Brain on Art: The Healing Power of Expressive Arts

Explore your creative side to reduce stress and create happiness
Painting a picture

You’ve probably heard that yoga, meditation and mindfulness can work wonders for your well-being. But in our hectic lives it can be difficult to slow down or calm ourselves to practice those things. 

A simpler and perhaps more engaging way to achieve the same results is looking at art or listening to music, because they give us something beautiful to focus on. Either activity can create calm and help you stay in the moment. More than just bringing good feelings, looking at art or listening to music has lasting cognitive benefits. Art or music appreciation relieves mental fatigue and restores the ability to focus. It’s one of the reasons I like to play music while working on art… dual benefits!

Impacts of art on health

In 2010, the American Journal of Public Health published a review titled “The Connection Between Art, Healing and Public Health.” In that article, researchers analyzed more than 100 studies regarding the impact of art on health and the ability to heal oneself through creativity. The studies included everything from music and writing to dance and visual arts. Here’s how researchers described the impact that creative activities had on patients:

  • Distracted from thoughts of illness
  • Improved well-being by decreasing negative emotions and increasing positive ones
  • Improved medical outcomes 
  • Reduced depression, stress and anxiety
  • Improvements in spontaneity, positive identity and social networks

Art is stimulating

More recent MRI studies at medical universities like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Mayo Clinic show exposure to art stimulates both brain hemispheres. This deep activation of brain systems through art reduces stress and creates happiness. Simply put, it’s good medicine — and it’s FREE!

In his book, Musicophilia, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks explores the power of music to move and to heal us. According to his studies, music occupies even more areas of our brain than language does. We are fundamentally musical beings. 

An out-of-body experience

Perhaps even better than looking at art or listening to music is actually creating it. Creative expression is a powerful tool for well-being. It can reduce blood pressure and stress levels and actually improve brain function. The process of making art is good for you. There are both physical and mental benefits from creating and expressing yourself in a tangible way and sharing that expression with the world. It’s empowering and provides a sense of control, especially when it feels like the rest of your world is out of your control. The act of creation takes you inside a world of your own making. It is, in a very real sense, an out-of-body experience.

“Oh, I can’t do that, I’m not artistic” is something I hear at the beginning of almost every art class I facilitate for patients and caregivers. And my response is always the same, “Of course you are, you just forgot.”

Rediscover your inner artist

As children we are innately creative. Give a small child a crayon, and they instinctively know what to do with it. They don’t worry about the end result, they’re “in the moment,” creating. Once we start school we start being judged and graded. We focus more on the outcome rather than on the doing. If we feel we don’t stack up to others, we begin to stifle our creative side. What a disservice to our true creative selves! The wonderful thing is: We never really lose that creative core. It’s still there, sleeping, and it’s never too late to reawaken it. And there lies healing. Powerful stuff!

Reconnect with your inner child and rediscover the artist you’ve always been. Give it a try!

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