THE HEALING EFFECTS OF VISUAL ART
an article by Eve Pearce
Beauty is the Most Effective Medicine
Visual art is a good way of relaxing yourself and putting you in a positive mind frame. Looking at a beautiful picture or moving image is guaranteed to raise your spirits and get you ready for life’s challenges. However it isn’t just a mental pick-me-up; research suggests that it could also have physical benefits for the observer. The results of a study conducted by neurologist Dr Marina de Tommaso and his team of researchers at the University of Bari in Italy indicate that gazing at a beautiful image can reduce the extent to which the viewer feels pain. The doctor and his assistants asked twelve healthy men and twelve healthy women to pick the twenty paintings that they considered to be the most visually appealing and the twenty pictures that they considered to be the ugliest from a selection of three hundred pictures painted by artists that included Picasso, Boticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Short laser pulses were administered to their hands whilst they were contemplating these pictures, causing an unpleasant prickling sensation.
Art Can Take the Pain Away
The subjects also had the laser pulses administered to their hands whilst they were observing a blank panel as a control experiment. They rated the level of pain that they experienced as being a third less intense whilst they were viewing the paintings that they thought were beautiful than they did when viewing either the blank panel or those that they considered to be ugly. There was no difference between the level of pain that they reported suffering when viewing the ugly paintings and the blank panel. Marina de Tommaso concluded that by viewing aesthetically pleasing images, pain levels can be reduced at the cortical level of the brain.
Keep your Mental Health in Check
It isn’t only those who are suffering from painful ongoing medical conditions that can benefit from visual art. The findings of a study conducted by researchers at the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study Research Centre at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicate that it could also be useful for staving off depression and anxiety. The researchers collected data from over fifty thousand people who lived in central Norway and concluded that those who regularly viewed art at exhibitions were less likely to suffer from these conditions than those who did not. The same applied to those who regularly viewed films at the cinema, suggesting that visual art in the form of video might be particularly beneficial in the fight against mental illness.
Depression and anxiety are catalysts for a wide range of other afflictions including self-harm, alcoholism and drug addiction. The results of the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study Research Centre’s study indicate that if, for example, a drug addict lived in a small town in middle of the Arizona desert, where there was nothing but sand for miles around, he or she might consider booking into rehab in Arizona but feel too depressed to go through with it. Add breathtaking images of tropical Fijian lagoons and white winter mornings in the Canadian Rockies into the equation and it could be a different matter entirely. It might give an individual the extra push that he or she requires in order to get clean.
Perhaps the most famous advocate of the healing powers of aesthetically pleasing images was Florence Nightingale. She was fascinated by the effect that beautiful visual experiences had upon her patients and claimed that she had witnessed fevers being brought about in those within her care simply because they were not being able to look out of the window and observe the scenery. She stated that she believed that appealing images had a physical as well as a mental effect upon her patients and said that, ‘Variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are actual means of recovery.’
A relaxed mind is a healthy mind so it is perhaps little wonder viewing breathtaking visual art can keep people healthy and help to reduce the suffering caused by any illnesses that they might still contract. Images like the waterfalls of Havasupai in India or autumn sunrises in Tasmania are so powerful that it would have been surprising if they had no positive effect upon a person’s health. The sights we see define our outlook on the world and help to shape our thought processes. If our eyes are pleased, our minds are pleased, which is conducive to good health and happiness.