The Power of Expression: Art and the Mind

cottonwood trees wade richardson

Painting Credit: Wade Richardson

How art is connected with wellbeing

Humans are drawn to different forms of expression, even as infants. Most children spend countless hours with crayons, even toddlers love to dance, and many can’t help but sing. It is within our nature to be have interest in the arts of expression, which is understandable, as researchers learn more and more about how art has the power to influence every aspect of our wellbeing.

Art and the Mind

Martin Seligman, a leading voice on positive psychology, says that there are five key elements of psychological wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, positive relationships and meaning. It could be argued that art hits on most if not all of these elements.

photo waterfall wesley aston
Photo credit: Wesley Aston,

Art is introspective, and can help us discover new sides of ourselves. It can also help us get a grip on our emotions, which is especially helpful in a medical setting. A host of studies have examined the influence of artwork and music on cancer patients and those undergoing surgery, and the benefits range from reduced anxiety to reduced depression to lower blood pressure and more. More and more medical groups are implementing art participation programs for their patients.

Scientists are beginning to understand that what we see is directly related to the activity in our brain. Semir Zeki, a neurologist at University College London, examined brain activity of people viewing works of art, and found that the activity was similar to that when someone feels love or desire. The pleasure and reward centers are activated.

Feelings of wonder and amazement can lower levels of harmful chemicals in the body that lead to disease, say researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said psychologist Dr. Dacher Keltner.

Some studies even suggest that art can be a factor that contributes to shorter hospital stays and a lessened perception of pain, though more research is needed. One study from the University of Florida College of Nursing found that patients who had a landscape picture on their wall needed less narcotic pain medication relative to others in a similar condition, and left the hospital sooner.

Sources: The Atlantic, National Endowment for the Arts, Arts & Health South West, American Public Health Association


Art and Academics

The National Endowment for the Arts collected comprehensive data on the influence of art programs in schools, and the data was clear. High school students who have art intensive experiences have higher SAT scores, are much more likely to graduate, and are more likely to get a bachelor’s degree, compared to students who don’t have these experiences. Furthermore, the research showed that students who participated in art in school were more likely to be involved in the community, to volunteer and to vote.


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