It’s no secret that art can impact lots of people’s lives in very meaningful and deep ways. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” can attest to this much at the very least. Whether you think art is paint on a canvas or scenes from the nature that surrounds you, what we as a society deem art has an impact on us all.
Art is actually part of what historians deem necessary for a group of people to be considered a society! Art, along with writing, cities, government, religion, and social structure, is the very basis of life as we as humans have known it for millennia. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that art has both a mental and physical effect on the human being.
To begin, music can have a significant effect on concentration. A lot of research has gone into its ability to help people hone their concentration, and theories such as the Mozart effect suggest that this effect extends to even spatial awareness. Physically, dancing is something that most people universally feel compelled to do when hearing a catchy beat. However, there is a physical effect besides dancing that not everyone feels: goosebumps. Studies suggest that 50% of all people experience this phenomena (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Larcher, Dagher, Zatorre, 2011), and is a result of excitement from music. It was found that dopamine production was very high while participants were listening to music, and this could suggest why music has been such a large part of cultures across the ages.
Visual art can produce a lot of the same effects that music does. General feelings of happiness and calmness can be found and utilized via art therapy. Many people use these benefits of art to quell distress and solve problems in their own lives, and part of this effect is suggested to be caused by being involved in something tangible (Malchiodi, 2012). Tangibility is something that isn’t often seen when dealing with mental issues. Most all of our mental issues stem from the chemicals within us that dictate how we view situations and the reactions we have in regards to them, and while it may be possible to visualize how these chemicals work, you cannot mold your reactions and chemical outputs like you can mold a block of clay or paint a piece of canvas. Control is something that many who are struggling with internal battles such as mental illness or grief are desiring to achieve, and art therapy and other physical-emotional therapies can help achieve a more tangible version of this.
The picture I’ve included displays the ventral striatum, which has also been shown to be activated and produce dopamine when shown art via a study at Emory (Eastman, 2011). When shown a photograph versus an artistic rendition of the subject, participants were seen to have much more activity in the ventral striatum while looking at the art. This part of your brain is very close to the midbrain and plays a role in the decision making vs reward system. So, looking at art may actually be a reward from our brain’s point of view!
Overall, art is an essential part of the human experience. Even if it doesn’t play a big role in someone’s personal life, art shapes the world around us and almost everything we experience when we interact with others. Art impacts what’s on the T.V. when you turn it on, it impacts what you see in textbooks on ancient civilizations (be it cave paintings, classical works, or folk art), it impacts what comes on on your radio and what reaches the tops of the charts on your streaming services. Art impacts us all, whether it makes you sad, happy, or anywhere in between.
Eastman Q. 2011 Jan 6. Viewing Art Activates Brain’s Reward Circuits.
Malchiodi CA. 2012. Handbook of Art Therapy, Second Edition.
Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Larcher K, Dagher A, Zatorre RJ. 2011. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14:257–262.