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Art Therapy

By Patrick Lee

The renowned Renaissance artist Michelangelo once said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”[1] Though he said this long before the advent of modern medicine and neuroscience, current research indicates that there is a close connection between art and mental cognition. In fact, a psychological profession called art therapy seeks to utilize this close relationship between art and the brain to promote health and happiness. The American Art Therapy Association formally defines the practice as “a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being.” [2] Often, art therapists use art to alleviate symptoms of certain disorders or to help patients learn more about themselves and their psychological states. Though the neurobiological basis of how art therapy provides these benefits is not entirely clear, a host of experiments prove that it is nevertheless an effective treatment.

The most tangible benefit of art therapy is the alleviation of certain symptoms of a wide spectrum of physical diseases and mental disorders. In general, it tends to reduce stress, anxiety, and pain for patients who live in constant pain or discomfort. For example, in a 2001 study published in Medical and Pediatric Oncology, children with leukemia who were undergoing painful procedures showed reduced levels of anxiety and trauma when undergoing a consistent regimen of art therapy.[3] Methods such as free drawing, which allows children to materialize inner fears, or structured drawing, which promotes a sense of control over reality, had palliative effects and made the patients more cooperative going through the procedures.[4] A 2005 study in Psycho-Oncology yielded similar results. In the experiment, mindfulness-based art therapy, a combination of mindfulness meditation and art tasks, was shown to reduce symptoms of distress in a group of female cancer patients.[5]

Art therapy is also helpful in the treatment of mental disorders. It is especially effective in the treatment of trauma and other sorts of psychological abuse. In patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), art therapy assisted with reconsolidation of memories and externalization.[6] In other words, through the medium of painting or drawing, people can confront painful, terrifying memories in a comforting and controlled environment. They have power over the art, and thus have power over their memories. Although these aforementioned physical and mental benefits are the results of specific studies, it is generally agreed upon that art therapy, at the very least, can be effectively used to learn more about the patient’s psychological state and how he or she perceives the world.[7] From a biological standpoint, researchers cannot prove art therapy’s efficacy, but thus far, the successes of these experiments signal a hopeful future for art therapy.

with a focus on therapy for traumatic events ( These activities are applicable to all because they address universal life experiences such as illness of a parent, divorce, and death. However, for those who wish to address more persistent mental health issues, there are many professional art therapists available nationwide who can help patients discover the sources of their issues or diagnose potential mental disorders.

Even activities as simple as visiting a museum and viewing artwork can promote well-being. A 2005 New York Times article describes a program sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art that provides tours to elderly Alzheimer’s patients, who in turn demonstrated improved memory and verbal skills while participating in the program.[8] Amazingly, something as simple as a museum tour can, for a short time, counteract the effects of a devastating mental illness. It keeps the brain active and can be beneficial. Ultimately, art therapy covers a broad spectrum of methods that play an important role in promoting well-being.

Further Information Concerning Art Therapy:

1. The tools of neuroscience shine light on how art therapy can be beneficial to patients with dementia.

2. The American Art Therapy Association website provides an overview of the major aspects of art therapy, and it is an effective tool for exploring careers in art therapy.

3. This report of a 2006 experiment analyzes the effects of mindfulness-based art therapy on women suffering from cancer.

4. Cathy Malchiodi’s Handbook of Art Therapy presents several case study analyses of art therapy treatment and includes a chapter on art therapy’s relationship to neuroscience.

5. Explore how art therapy has been used to help minimize fear or anxiety in children with leukemia who were undergoing painful surgical procedures.

6. “The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s Therapy,” describes how art therapy, in this case, tours of the Museum of Modern Art, has helped increase alertness and cognitive functions in Alzheimer’s patients.

7. “Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy” examines how scientists use brain imaging techniques to try to decipher the relationship between art therapy and the structure of the brain itself.

[1]. 2011. Accessed 29 April 2011. .

[2]. 2011. Accessed 21 April 2011. .

[3] . Accessed 21 April 2011. .

[4] ibid.

[5] Accessed 21 April 2011. .

[6]. Accessed 21 April 2011. [7] Betts, Donna J. “A Systematic Analysis of Art Therapy Assessment and Rating Instrument Literature.” 2005. Accessed 28 April 2011.

[8] Kennedy, Randy. “The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s Therapy.” The New York Times. 30 October 2005. Accessed 21 April 2011.

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