Humans have been creating art for a long time: the oldest work of art dates back at least 430,000 years (which is particularly old, considering the modern human evolved 200,000 years ago). So, if a capability and desire to create art existed prior to the evolution of the Homo sapien – the artist of the oldest artwork was a Homo erectus – then there must be a reason that humans are drawn towards art. A real reason, not just because it’s pretty or fun to make, but a hypothesis-driven-scientifically-studied-and-proved-with-research-and-data kind of reason. Turns out that there is.
Or are, rather. Numerous studies have been conducted that demonstrate the positive effects of art on both the body and mind. Therapeutic practices utilizing art began in the 1940s and have continued to be further defined and developed since. Many recognize the calming effects that creating art provides, as it often leads to free thinking, new ideas, and self-expression. However, art’s impact on the body digs deep, affecting chemical and hormone levels.
Arts for Health
A recent study led by Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University, analyzed how making art affects the stress-related hormones in the body. The study found that 45 minutes of creative activity significantly reduces stress in the body, despite one’s level of artistic talent or experience. The results of the study were published in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association in an article titled “Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making.”
As the title describes, the study researched the degree to which art making impacted an individual’s cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and elevated levels of it are associated with more than burdensome, anxious emotions. High cortisol levels can hinder learning and memory abilities, lower immune functions, decrease bone density, cause weight gain, lead to heart disease, raise blood pressure, and increase cholesterol. Phew.
The study consisted of 39 healthy adults, who ranged from 18 to 59 years old. With paper, markers, clay, and collage materials available, the participants were instructed to create anything they wanted for 45 minutes. Each participant provided saliva samples before and after art making to detirmine their cortisol levels. Additionally, participants wrote a response about the experience after completing the art making session. The quantitative and qualitative data revealed complimentary data. 75% of participants had lower levels of cortisol, and most described feelings of relaxation and enjoyment in their written responses. Interestingly, these results were consistent across a wide range of variables – age, time of day, prior experience with art making, gender, and media choice – leading to the conclusion that creative activity is an all around stress reducer.
While creating art provides health benefits, just the presence of art itself produces beneficial outcomes for one’s health. Viewing art can be aesthetically pleasing, or it may elicit a particular emotion, or provoke an interesting thought. The effects of art extend further than the emotional or mental: art produces biological responses that positively affect the body. In a 2015 study at the University of California – Berkley, researchers concluded that experiencing wonder during an activity like viewing art can lower levels of specific harmful chemicals in the body, such as those that can result in inflammation and potentially lead to other serious illnesses, including diabetes and heart attack.
In the study, 200 young adults described the amount of wonder and amazement that they experienced in one day. The researchers took gum and cheek tissues samples, referred to as oral mucosal transudate, from the participants and found that those who said to have had higher levels of wonder and amazement had lower levels of cytokine interleukin 6, which is an indicator of inflammation. Cytokine interleukin 6 is essential for the body to fight infections, but when it is in large quantities, the chemical can lead heart disease, arthritis, type to diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Scientists believe that when the brain produces cytokine, the molecules block important neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which regulate mood, sleep, appetite, and memory.
Although the participants’ personal citing of wonder and amazement is a subjective data tool, it has long been recognized that there is a healing power of art. Dr. Jennifer Stellar of Toronto University, who helped carry out the experiment, stated that “Awe is associated with curiosity and a desire to explore which could counter inflammation where individuals typically withdraw from others in their environment.”
Art in Healthcare
Due to the restorative and healing qualities of art, it is vital that healthcare organizations incorporate art into their programming and setting. By allowing patients the opportunity for creative expression, patients may lower stress levels and potentially decrease recovery time. Likewise, having engaging art on the walls can aid in the healing process. Artwork can create a calming environment and spark curiosity – all while decreasing levels of cytokine interleukin 6 and cortisol.
Needless to say, art and health go hand in hand.