For thousands of years, people have searched for the meaning and beauty of life in music, painting, poetry and other arts. Now scientists are finding that the arts can benefit both your mental and physical health.
Current research is following a number of paths. Some scientists measure the natural substances your body produces when you’re listening to music or otherwise exposed to the arts. Others look at what happens when you are active in the creative process. Researchers are now investigating how the arts can help us recover from disease, injury and psychological trauma. Many scientists agree that the arts can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve well-being and enhance the way we fight infection.
Let’s start with music. “There is a reward system in place for learning music,” says Dr. Daniel Levitin of McGill University in Montréal. Music can activate the same brain areas as chocolate, opium and orgasm. Of course, at different intensities.
Music plays an important role throughout our lives. Parents worldwide sing and coo to their babies. And let’s not forget the other end of the life cycle: Levitin says that music “may be the last thing to go” in those with severe memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease. “Even if they don’t know their own spouse, they can sing the songs of their youth.”
Recent studies have found evidence that singing releases substances that serve as the brain’s own natural pain-killers. Singing also increases the “bonding hormone” that helps us feel a sense of trust. And when we listen to music, levels of molecules important for fighting infection can rise.
Many of us intuitively use music for relaxation and enjoyment—to socialize, exercise or change our mood after a hard day. But music therapy is sometimes used in the clinic as well, requiring a certified therapist to interact with the patient.
To measure the effects of such therapy, one study showed how levels of an important brain chemical that relays signals between cells increased after 4 weeks of music therapy. It then decreased after the therapy was halted.
And a recent report from Finnish scientists showed that listening to music helps stroke patients recover both memory and focused attention. The researchers also found that music can reduce post-stroke depression and confusion. Other studies suggest that stroke patients may improve faster if they sing, rather than speak, as part of their rehabilitation.
Scientists are also studying how art therapy can help to ease pain and stress and improve quality of life. Megan Robb, a certified art therapist at NIH’s Clinical Center, says, “When traumatic memories are stored in the brain, they’re not stored as words but as images. Art therapy is uniquely suited to access these memories.”
Once you draw or paint these images, she explains, you can then progress to forming words to describe them. This externalizes the trauma—moves it out of isolation, onto the page and into a positive exchange with the therapist. This process, Robb says, gives you “an active involvement in your own healing.”
Several small studies, some of which were supported by NIH, have suggested that art therapy can help improve health status, quality of life and coping behaviors. It can improve depression and fatigue in cancer patients on chemotherapy, and help prevent burnout in caregivers. It’s also been used to help prepare children for painful medical procedures, as well as to improve the speech of children with cerebral palsy.
And then there’s writing. Expressive writing—writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events—has been shown to have a number of health benefits, from improving symptoms of depression to helping fight infection. Dr. James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has designed several studies to show the links between writing and health.
“Writing about emotional upheavals in our lives can improve physical and mental health,” Pennebaker says. “Although the scientific research surrounding the value of expressive writing is still in the early phases, there are some approaches to writing that have been found to be helpful.”
In a series of exercises, healthy student volunteers who wrote about traumatic experiences had more positive moods, fewer illnesses and better measures of immune-system function than those who wrote about superficial experiences. Even 6 weeks later, the students who’d written about what upset them reported more positive moods and fewer illnesses than those who’d written about everyday experiences.
In another study of students vulnerable to depression, those who did expressive writing exercises showed significantly lower depression symptoms, even after 6 months, than those who had written about everyday matters.
Arts that involve movement, such as dance, can also bring health benefits. Researchers already know that physical activity can help you reduce stress, gain energy, sleep better and fight depression and anxiety. NIH-funded researchers are now studying Tai Chi—a sequence of slow, graceful body movements—to see how it affects fitness and stress in cancer survivors.
NIH is currently funding several studies to learn more about the health effects of expressive writing and other arts. If you’re interested in participating, search for clinical trials in your area at http://clinicaltrials.gov.
Remember that the arts are no substitute for medical help when you need it. But they can still bring health benefits. If you enjoy writing or any other art, go for it. You don’t have to be “good” at them for them to be good for you.