Is looking at art a path to mental well-being?
During a dark period of his youth, Bill Murray thought about killing himself while wandering the streets of Chicago. “I was ready to die,” the actor said at a press conference several years ago. That day, he decides to visit the Institute of Fine Arts and finds himself in front of Jules Breton’s 1884 painting. The song of the lark, which represents a young woman looking up to the sky, sickle in hand, a violent orange sunrise behind her. Suddenly Murray felt hope. “I was just like, well, there’s a girl that doesn’t have a lot of prospects, but the sun is coming up anyway and she’s got another chance to do it,” he said. “It kind of gave me a feeling that I too am a person and that I have another chance every day that the sun rises.” Murray credits the painting with saving his life.
Although making art has long been viewed as a form of self-expression therapy, recently passive participation – la looking at to art – is now valued as a different way to improve mental health. “We know that for a lot of people, making art can be very therapeutic,” says Tim A. Shaw, artist and co-founder of Hospital Rooms, an arts and mental health charity. “But also, making art is generally not an easy and relaxing thing for artists; it is uncomfortable pleasure.
A few months ago, doctors from one of the largest hospitals in Brussels teamed up and started prescribing visits to the city’s fine arts museums. “We are in the midst of a crisis [that has] brought so much stress to people, and I think that culture can be the answer, ”explains Delphine Houba, alderman for culture in Brussels. The World Health Organization, in 2019, also released a 146-page report that recommends the inclusion of the arts in mental health treatment. In the UK, Hospital Rooms have transformed dozens of psychiatric wards by painting their walls and filling them with artwork, commissioning works from artists like Nick Knight and Gavin Turk.
Beautiful environments could have an impact on both our mood and our physical well-being, according to several studies in publications including the Journal of Psychiatric Critical Care and Frontiers in Psychology. “Generally, beauty and music or art are very rewarding for the human brain,” says Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist and professor of neural sciences at New York University. “It can activate our natural, stress-relieving part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system which slows down our heart rate. And I think it’s so important these days because our stress and anxiety levels are so high. “
A number of studies have shown that hospital patients who visit gardens or simply have a view of nature out the window often recover faster than those who do not. But beautiful views are not intrinsic to hospital design, so bringing art into facilities helps provide that same sense of tranquility. Artwork can also encourage conversation between patients, says Shaw. “It goes beyond decoration. It’s much more about bringing a little humanity to a space, ”he says.
Much of the current research contributes to the growing field of what is called neuroesthetics, studying how the brain responds to different art forms and how aesthetic appreciation can affect mental health. Which one will put you in a good mood: a Pollock or a Monet? This, Shaw says, is too personal for conclusive data. “What we’re trying to get away from is some very simplistic research that says people like blue more than red, or people like landscapes, because that doesn’t really take into account the nuance of preferences. individuals or history with color, imagery and aesthetics, ”he says.
As a new year dawns, as resolutions are set, many will focus on wellness in the form of gym memberships and weight loss diets. Is looking at art a shortcut to happiness? While this may be a more appealing option, Suzuki isn’t entirely convinced. On the contrary, she says, beauty and art are “wonderful for de-stressing, for inspiring, and they are emotional states that can help with anxiety and depression.” But there are a lot of things that are scientifically backed up that can improve your mood immediately, with exercise being # 1 on my list.
Or, you can do both: so run, don’t walk, to the nearest museum.
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