You know the feeling; when you catch your breath and a pleasant sensation runs through you, your feet lift off the floor and the world melts away, then it’s just you and the piece of art that placed you in this wonderful trance. That’s called awe – and doctors and scientists have only recently been paying attention to it, to surprising findings. Science now confirms that enjoying art plays a significant role in preventing mental *and* physical illness from developing in the first place and worsening in the long term. Additionally, engaging with art is consistently seen to enhance quality of life in people of all ages. In short, being around art addresses many challenges our health has been facing around the globe – without causing a single side effect. Here’s the proof:
1: The first breakthrough came in 2011 when Semir Zeki, professor of Neuroesthetics from University College London, published his findings after using MRI technology to map the brain of people inspired by art. What he found was that the when we see something beautiful, the brain lights up and mimics the same patterns as falling in love or receiving a reward; releasing the feel-good chemical dopamine into the front part of our brain. Zeki went on to author 200 papers, 5 books and this TED talk on the subject; opening up a scientific field that investigates what happens in our body when we have a subjective experience.
2: Building on those findings, in 2015 a group of scientists from UC Berkeley conducted two separate experiments with over 200 patients. They then confirmed that when we’re experiencing awe in front of an artwork, our immune systems are getting a boost too. More specifically they found that we produce lower levels of a certain chemical in our body that causes inflammation, which can otherwise trigger heart attacks, diabetes and other illnesses.
3: With the facts becoming hard to ignore, the first program allowing doctors to prescribe museum visits to their patients was in Montreal in 2018. Hospitals and family doctors prescribed free visits to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art to great success. The program was then picked up and expanded on by hospitals in the UK, who conducted a study finding that people who took part in their arts-on-prescription program showed a 37% drop in GP consultations and 27% reduction in hospital admissions. Statistically proving that being around art equals a healthier life.
4: Another San Fransisco study looked at how much of a role feeling inspired plays in our adaptation and learning capacity: finding that they’re clearly linked. The more we feel inspired regularly, the more we’re able to empathise with others and adapt to new situations when they come up. When the world went into lockdown earlier this year, it also turned to art and culture to help us grasp and accept our new reality. That’s no coincidence.
5: Lastly, the next time you’re with your family doctor ask whether they collect or appreciate art, because it’s been proven that doctors who view art make better, potentially life saving diagnoses for your own health! It all comes down to fine tuning their powers of observation, being able to grasp complexity and noticing their personal bias. Art may sometimes be difficult to grasp but understanding the human body in all its complexity is a far more difficult task.
As proven by science, engaging with art helps us mentally and physically stay healthy, work better towards a more open society, and even help our doctors keep us in good shape. With less opportunities to visit art shows, galleries and museums in our post-Covid world, bringing inspiring art into your home can be just what the doctor ordered.