Your Brain on Art

More than 12 years ago, Family Medicine reported on the benefits of medical students observing the arts, in the article, “Visual Thinking Strategies: A New Role for Art in Medical Education”  (Reilly, Ring, and Duke, 2005). What are these benefits and how have they evolved?

Today, The Yale School of Medicine requires students to take a course in observing artwork to enhance the future physician’s observational skills, which improves patient assessment and diagnostic evaluation. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai offers a course called The Pulse of Art, “to encourage medical students to look more closely, to see things about their patients that might be unexpected, but critical in making a diagnosis” (Wolff, 2018).  These assessment skills are enhanced even further when the art being observed is created directly by the patient. Deborah Elkis-Abuhoff, who is an Associate Professor in the Master Degree Program of Creative Art Therapy at Hofstra University, believes that discussing a patient’s own art removes the verbal filters and the tangible creation offers a path to honest communication.  She says that what she is able to accomplish in three months of verbal therapy, she achieves in three weeks of creative art therapy (Hofstra University Webinar, 2015).

cover art of modern art at the border of art and brain

Regarding the performing arts, the Harvard Medical School and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons encourage theatrical participation for their students for two reasons: one, to help the medical student personally unwind and two, to enhance the students’ understanding and ability to empathize with what patients are going through. Taking on different characters on stage allows the student to put his or her self in the role of the patient. I spoke to this in an earlier blog, Break a Leg in Medical School?

Now, there is evidence that the creative arts not only benefit medical students’ education; but can also be integrated successfully as part of a patient’s therapy. For those who suffer from anxiety, neurological diseases, addiction, trauma, and other debilitating conditions, participation in the creative arts such as painting, drawing, sculpting helps improve their physical condition and behavioral well being. This improvement is described in more detail in many scholarly articles. One randomized controlled trial with 118 stroke patients found, “Creative art therapy combined with conventional physical therapy can significantly decrease depression, improve physical functions and increase quality of life compared with physical therapy alone” (Kongkasuwan, Voraakhom, Pisolayabutra, Maneechai, Boonin, & Kuptniratsaikul, 2016). Using your ILLIAD account, and our Interlibrary loan service, we can easily retrieve this article for you, as well as others that may be of interest. Though it focuses specifically on modern art, we also have this book in our collection, Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain, which explains the positive neurological impact of observing images.

The effects of art on the brain benefit both patient and physician, connecting the synapses between the two and helping us look more closely at what we truly enjoy.