The Benefits of Art on Emotional Well-being
Art has several effects on us: it activates our senses, stimulates our imagination, engages our minds, and allows us to release emotions. In general, enjoying artistic works with positive, pleasant, and beautiful aesthetics fills us sensorially and intellectually, promoting a positive emotional state.
This assertion is supported from the early days of psychology. Howard Gardner, the author of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, advocated for the inclusion of art in education, as it helps develop intuitive and creative thinking.
But how do music, painting, and other forms of art affect our minds? What benefits can be derived from them for our emotional well-being?
Art and the Brain: Processing Artistic Stimuli
The brain's processing of artistic pieces is not limited to the identification of images, sounds, or other stimuli like textures or movement. For example, there is a specific area of the brain that is activated only when listening to musical pieces, while connections with the limbic system and cerebellum occur when dancing.
Therefore, the study of how each artistic modality activates our brain is quite extensive:
Visual pieces (painting, sculpture, and dance):
Observing a piece of art is a process that begins in the retina, where a general impression of what we are seeing is created. Subsequently, this amalgamation of light and color gains depth and contours as it is processed in the primary visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe.
The information extracted from that image (motion, color, contours, shapes) is obtained through the involvement of secondary areas related to memory (temporal lobe), emotions (limbic system), or its connection to abstract concepts (frontal lobe).
It is this secondary processing that connects with art. These mental representations of what is being observed, along with all the processes involved, allow us to find a parallel between our own worldview and the image we are observing.
Processing a musical piece is not the same, in terms of neurological effects, as listening to other types of sounds. Although auditory stimuli, artistic or not, go through the eardrum, mesencephalon, and primary and secondary auditory cortex, music requires involvement of other areas for its proper processing:
Rostromedial prefrontal cortex: The evocation of memories and the emotional impact conveyed by the tone and rhythm of music are processed in this part of the prefrontal lobe.
Right temporal area: Recognition of melodies, rhythm, and tone of the piece.
Limbic system: The emotional part of music processing is handled in this subcortical structure, which, in turn, connects with the previously mentioned areas.
Processing of Literature:
Reading is one of the most beneficial exercises for the brain. Listening to or reading stories (on paper) starts with language processing areas like Wernicke's area, but it also involves others, such as the frontal lobe, responsible for organizing the information being read. While this extensive brain area categorizes characters and events, the limbic system focuses on processing the emotional aspects of the narrative, and several memory-related areas work to connect this information to the reader's own life.
Literature is a dialogue between the writer and the reader where the latter cannot respond but can construct their own internal monologue with the information they receive.
What Happens in Our Brain When We Create Art?
Processing art and producing it are two different processes, even though they pertain to the same subject. Listening to a song is not the same, neurologically, as composing one, as the latter involves associating and synthesizing experiences, ideas, and physical abilities.
In this regard, authors like Arieti, Howard Gardner, or de la Gándara claim that producing a work of art requires the activation of the multimodal area of the brain, also known as TPO or temporo-parieto-occipital area, in conjunction with the prefrontal cortex. These cortical areas work together to integrate external stimuli with the information stored in the brain, thus synthesizing a unique form of expression: art.
However, producing a piece of art isn't just about this process; it also involves an emotional component. This is where the medial zones of the brain's hemispheres come into play (such as the parahippocampal area and the fusiform gyrus) along with the limbic system, responsible for giving emotional tone to the work.
Creativity is also influenced by laterality: for instance, the left hemisphere dominates linguistic production, while the right hemisphere is more dominant in musical creation.
Benefits of Art on Emotional Well-being
The significant power of art is to make us feel, meaning the sensory effect it has on the observer and, of course, on the creator. As Kant stated, aesthetic pleasure is disinterested, an interaction between processes originating in the mind and sensory input (what psychology calls bottom-up and top-down processes, respectively).
Given this intuitively evident effect, many researchers have undertaken controlled studies to explore the emotional benefits of art. The most apparent proof that psychology uses art to improve people's emotional well-being is art therapy. It harnesses artistic expression to support the therapeutic process and helps patients find ways for emotional expression and communication, as well as to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and introspection as secondary outcomes.
Some of the benefits that art can have on emotional well-being include:
1. Stress Reduction:
Even without attending art therapy sessions, artistic expression is directly and positively related to stress reduction. In fact, artistic activities have proven to be more effective for this purpose than non-artistic ones.
2. Stimulation of Creative Thinking:
In art, there are no wrong answers. When used to improve emotional well-being, it helps deactivate the usual thought constraints, exercising the brain in atypical ways. Training creative thinking is essential for problem-solving in everyday life.
3. Improved Self-esteem:
You don't need to be a professional artist to create art. Through artistic expression, emotions are released, and pieces are created that generate a sense of accomplishment, help improve self-awareness, and activate the reward circuit. Moreover, skills developed through artistic practice (playing an instrument, dancing, painting techniques) also contribute to forming a more positive self-image.
4. Memory Benefits:
Both creating art and enjoying it as a spectator stimulate areas related to memory, as explained earlier. In fact, several studies support the use of art therapy in patients with severe brain injuries and dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.
5. Chronic Pain Relief:
Given the complexity of chronic pain, understanding it is important to relieve those who suffer from it. A 2019 study published in the journal "Metas de Enfermería" began to investigate this relationship and found that art therapy does indeed help patients better understand their pain and experience some relief due to increased attentional focus and the development of cognitive-emotional strategies.
In summary, the multiple benefits that psychology has found in art to help people improve their emotional well-being are manifold. Therefore, consult with a psychology professional to see if you could also benefit from artistic expression.
You can count on an online psychologist at Therapyside to continue delving into your emotions, prioritize yourself, and take care of your psychological well-being. If this article has helped you better understand this topic, we hope you feel more empowered to live a life without limitations!