An excerpt from YOUR BRAIN ON ART by Susan Magsaman and Ivy Ross. Copyright © 2023 Susan Magsaman and Ivy Ross. Reprinted by agreement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
One of the most important advances in the art-meets-science approach to physical health has been the way in which researchers have begun to identify key neurobiological mechanisms. Mechanisms are the many chemical and physical processes that underlie how everything works in your body. The digestion of the last meal, for example, occurs through a variety of mechanisms, from the production of saliva in the mouth to chemicals in the stomach to the way nutrients are absorbed. We understand how and why the body digests food. And by better understanding the mechanisms involved in the use of art, practitioners can design and improve interventions with greater precision.
In a 2021 study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, Daisy Fancourt and her team looked at a growing body of evidence about the positive effects of leisure activities, such as art, on human health. They have identified and mapped more than 600 mechanisms—from improving respiratory and physical function to enhancing immune function and developing group values—that occur within our individual bodies, as well as at the group and societal level. These mechanisms can be divided into psychological, biological, social and behavioral.
Another critical point that Daisy and her fellow researchers made in this study of art and mechanisms has to do with the idea of a science of complexity. “People often thought that the field of arts and health should act in the same way as the field of pharmacology,” Daisy explained. For example, a drug has an active ingredient with one or two biological mechanisms of action, and they have predictable results. “Whereas our clear point in this article is that in the science of complexity, you recognize that there are hundreds of ingredients, hundreds of mechanisms. They all work bi-directionally, not just uni-directionally, and they are regulated by external factors.”
This explains very well why art has such a powerful effect on our health: while pharmacological treatment works in one, maybe two ways, art is able to trigger hundreds of mechanisms that work in concert.
“This point is really important to get across,” says Daisy, “because sometimes people see the complexity and “messiness” of art and health mechanisms as a weakness, when in fact it is the very essence of why art works. It’s just that we were applying an overly simplistic biomedical lens to something that needs to be viewed through the lens of complex science.”
Today, art is used in at least six different ways to heal the body: as preventive medicine; as relief of symptoms of everyday health problems; as a treatment or intervention for illness, developmental problems, and accidents; as psychological support; as a tool for a successful life with chronic problems; and at the end of life to provide comfort and meaning.
This alchemy of art and science, ranging from everyday aches and pains to major illnesses, is transforming our biology in measurable and effective ways. We are now at the point where doctors, as well as social workers and public health professionals, know enough to recommend various artistic endeavors that benefit our physical and mental health. We also learn that, how and when we are prescribed drugs, different types, doses and durations work differently for different people. You can also bring this knowledge home to start creating personalized art practices. Just like exercising and eating right, doing art regularly will keep you healthy.