How the Arts Can Change Your Brain
Art is part of the human experience. For all of recorded history, people have engaged in making and valuing art, from cave drawings to body and face ornamentation to sculpture to dance to portraiture to music. There is something magical about creating, and also about witnessing, art. Mental health practitioners and other healers recognize that there are many ways for people to get help, connect with others, cope, and heal. The arts provide many tools for mental health and wellness. They often provide paths to understanding and expressing emotions and experiences that may be harder to reach through healing modalities like talk therapy. Creating or seeing art can also be fun, exciting, and profound, enriching our lives and putting us in touch with experiences that make us feel good; positive experiences can combat depression and anxiety and make our lives feel more meaningful. Many people also feel a healing spiritual connection through the arts: Just think of the feeling of awe and ecstasy that can come from hearing soaring classical music, being inside a breathtaking building, or viewing a painting that captures a religious or spiritual experience.
Another benefit of engaging in the arts is that many artistic practices promote neuroplasticity (the growth and/or rewiring of the brain’s neuronal pathways, which gives us the ability to adapt to new habits, develop new skills, and absorb new information). Scientists used to believe that the brain stopped growing and creating new pathways early in life; however, more recent research has shown that brain growth and rewiring take place throughout the lifespan (although as we get older, this growth occurs at a slower pace).
Some studies have shown that drawing and painting can improve various brain functions, such as memory. Research also shows that people who learn to play a musical instrument (and especially those who become proficient at it) develop stronger connections among the various regions of the brain (Wan & Schlaug, 2010) and new and stronger neural pathways. Teaching patients to make music can aid in the treatment of developmental and neurological disorders, as well as the cognitive decline that comes with normal aging.
The fact that engaging in the arts can stimulate brain growth also means that anyone can learn to be creative–you don’t have to be “born with it.” A psychologist at Dartmouth College, Alexander Schlegel, and his fellow researchers published a study showing that taking an introductory class in painting or drawing literally alters students’ brains, allowing them not only to learn the technicalities of the art form but also to think more creatively.
Art forms like dance also have a positive and healing impact on the brain. Many studies have proven that dance can make a difference in people who have undergone trauma, those with Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, and the elderly. How so? First off, dance is a stimulating activity that connects mind and the movement of the body, as well as other senses such as vision, hearing, and touch. Many forms of dance also reduce isolation–connection with other people is healing.
If you’d like some ideas about how to explore your creative side and learn a little about expressive art therapy, check out the following websites.