The Impact of Art on the Brain



Art and the brain
Brain health

I love galleries. Visiting galleries as a child with my parents, created a lasting affection for them. As I got older, I became aware of the impact that these visits had on me- mainly the ability to evoke and deal with emotion; to stimulate thought and ideas. On one of my visits to WAM (Wits Art Museum), in Johannesburg, I visited the ‘Stars of the North Exhibition’ which focused on sculptors from the north of South Africa, including Noria Mabasa, Jackson Hlungwani, Johannes Maswanganyi, Philip Rikhotso and many more.

As a neurologist, with an interest in brain health, I was intrigued by the biography of Phutuma Seoka. Mr Seoka, visited a traditional healer in his community to help him with his recurrent nightmares. The traditional healer advised that he sculpt and a brilliant sculptor was born. On reading this, I understood what profound advice this was. Sculpting made a subconscious concern visible, and was a tangible way to deal with this concern. Art has been used in traditional practices throughout the world. Traditional healers understood that art can be used to heal. Neuroscience is beginning to explain how.

Art stimulates a particular network in the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN). This network, consists of different parts of the brain that work together when the brain is resting, including during meditation and day dreaming. It is deactivated when we are engaged in mentally stimulating activities. This network is important in self-reflection, memory of personal events and understanding the perspective of others. Art stimulates this network, thus assisting with self-reflection and solving problems regarding yourself.

“Art stimulates a network that is important in self-reflection”

In his TED Talk, Laolu Senbanjo, discusses how as a lawyer working at the Human Rights Commission he started painting as a way of dealing with the fustrations he felt in dealing with the injustices of the world. He talks about the irrepressible power of beauty, art and the human spirit. In a study by Bolwerk et al, art improved psychological resilience. Psychological resilience is the ability to cope with stress and find solutions to challenges. It does this by activating the DMN and a part of the brain called the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, which allows us to feel better. The reward centre of the brain is also stimulated. Viewing art, particularly abstract art may create new pathways in the brain. We can then tap into different ways of thinking, emotional processing, problem solving and creativity (Jonathon Fineberg- Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain). Art therapy has also been used in various illnesses to improve health outcomes.

What can you do?

Start drawing. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or not, the act of drawing will help you.

Consider joining an art class.

Visit art galleries. Make a list of places that you would like to visit and ask a friend to join you.

Appreciate art in your home, temple, church or city streets. Make the effort and have fun. You will increase your ability to cope with stress and illness, and perhaps enjoy everyday pleasures a little more.

All it takes is a little effort…

Kirti Ranchod

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