A few months back, I picked up a musical instrument put down long ago. Renewing regular practice sparked a noticeable revival and restored clarity in my mental state.
The link between human well-being and the arts isn’t just in my imagination. If I’m wrong, then the nation’s top physician is, too.
The current U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, recently called attention to October’s status as National Arts and Humanities Month. He noted the use of all art forms as a vital therapeutic in recovery. Then he went deeper, into our collective psyche.
“[The arts give] us a way to process the moment we are in as a society … to express pain and purpose, joy and solidarity … to share individual experiences and to connect to one another … At their best, the arts help us understand our distinct identity and our universal humanity, connect us to our past while helping us imagine a better future, and they deepen our sense of self while bringing us into meaningful encounters with one another,” Murthy said.
In what other ways do the arts change the way we think? I asked around to see how my experience was reflected in others.
Art professor and former professional dancer Lauren Woods pointed to a study just published by her Auburn University colleagues. The 2021 report via cooperation between neurology and art departments discovered how the act of drawing changes brain processes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), they determined “long-lasting training can create a neural network of spontaneous activity in the brain architecture of professionally trained artists.”
The areas most affected were the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, sub-lobar regions and cerebellum. The parietal lobes contain the primary sensory cortex, which controls sensations like touch and pressure. The cerebellum is also involved in the coordination of voluntary motor movement, balance, equilibrium and muscle tone.
The frontal lobe governs memory, emotions, impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction and motor function. So, if there’s neuroplasticity involved, it means artistic skills are enhancing the functions we place at the foundation of civilization.
Researchers concluded the diminished status we give arts in education and society is short-sighted and “the cognitive operations called thinking are not the privilege of mental processes above and beyond perception but the essential ingredients of perception itself.”
Artist and instructor Rachel Wright said time’s passage evaporates while she is engrossed in work, that she reaches an altered mental state. She compares it to hypnosis or meditation in which artists mine their memories while previsualizing the future and exploring the subconscious.
“Isn’t that ultimately what therapy is all about? How could you not be transformed by that?” Wright asked.
Mobile Museum of Art Executive Director Deborah Velders thinks control gives artists a boost.
“One’s entire focus, ideas, skill, imagination, energy and sense of purpose are directed toward a single effort — and that single activity is entirely within the individual creator’s control,” Velders said.
Historian and author John Sledge shared the love of immersion Wright mentioned. He didn’t share my sense of rejuvenation.
“I can go through a lot of approach avoidance, but when I finally close with the material, I love the solitude and absorption. I’m tired afterward,” Sledge said.
Mobile Opera General Director Scott Wright’s forte is music. He cited relationships between musical education and academic performance but can’t say which is cause or effect.
“I’m not certain if it is teleological or extrinsic — whether musically inclined people tend to also be better students or if the musical training tends to make them better students, but I suspect some of both,” Wright said.
He tagged creativity “satisfying.” The act also calls on artists to seek new interpretations and expressions of their world. His testimony as to creativity’s irrepressible nature? How Olivier Messiaen continued to compose music on scrap paper while incarcerated in a World War II prison camp.
“Ignoring creativity leaves us listless and carried along by the tides. Exercising it strengthens us and makes us more confident to directly take charge of our lives, or at least our attitudes. Exercising our creativity challenges us to see the world differently, stimulates curiosity and makes us seek new solutions or offer new expressions of what is within us,” Wright said.
Both Wright and Murthy credit the arts with building and maintaining community. In an era characterized by widening social fissures and growing talk of dissolution, this is more valuable than ever.
So, if we marginalize and neglect the arts, are we also applying solvent to our community’s glue? Are we chipping at the mortar holding our house together?
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