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Art does a body good

Will future physicians carry a stethoscope, thermometer and DVD of “Annie Get Your Gun” in case it’s indicated? If medical research sticks to its current story, it’s a possibility.

Once upon a time, art and science lived in a great gulf of self-imposed isolation, with strict separation between aesthetics and statistics. Researchers may have tolerated a wee bit of music to soothe the savage beast or sedate landscapes in psych wards, but the arts were only extra fringe on the edge of treatment.

Over the last few decades though, research is proving that the arts are clinically helpful for many conditions, and doctors and mental health workers are beginning to take notice. Now close to half of U.S. providers use some type of art programs or treatments. Even the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, is in the game, funding research on the effects of Tai-Chi on fitness, balance and stress levels of cancer survivors.

Music may become as common in hospitals as in church. Finnish scientists used music to reclaim memories and help orientate stroke patients to the point of having them sing to communicate (“East-Wing Story”?). Researchers find singing can alleviate pain, increase feelings of trust and bonding and cause a rise in molecules that increase immunity in patients. Human brains are highly attuned to music, which helps release dopamine and other brain molecules with tranquilizing or energizing effects – all sans drugs. Music also activates the same area of our brain as opiates and chocolates, without the nasty side effects of incarceration or high blood sugar.

Recent studies place music as a stellar protection against ravages of age. University of Kansas studies on 60-to-83-year-olds found that “highly active musicians” (but not necessarily professional) had astonishingly higher scores in nonverbal memory, thought processing, cognitive flexibility and auditory memory. If that isn’t enough to send you out for an oboe, music is now considered beneficial for anything for cancer to Parkinson’s and depression.

Traumatic stress victims particular benefit by singing and other art forms, drawing them out of isolation and making memories easier to live with.

Megan Robb, an art therapist for NIH describes how art heals trauma: “Traumatic memories are stored … not as words but as images.”

Drawing or painting the images helps bring up the words and can give “an active involvement in your own healing,” Robb explains.

Art therapy in many mediums is used now for veterans, the mentally ill, cancer survivors, abused children and even Kim Strouse’s “Rita Project” for people who have lost someone to suicide.

If the Holocaust is the grandfather of all trauma, it’s interesting to note its survivors show up in significant numbers in the arts. Roman Polanksi spent his Polish childhood hiding from Nazis and abuse while his mother and father were sent off to concentration camps. Was the macabre, evil tint that soaks his films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion” a form of therapy? I don’t know if anyone has asked Polanski about this.

Elie Wiesel

The great writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel asks, “Why do I write?” in a beautiful essay and this is one of his thoughts: “I hear a voice within me telling me to stop mourning the past. I too want to sing of love and of its magic. I too want to celebrate the sun, and the dawn that heralds the sun. I would like to shout, and shout loudly: ‘Listen, listen well! I too am capable of victory, do you hear?'”

Writing, painting, singing or filming about emotional chaos and grief appears to improve physical and mental health. A group of healthy students who wrote several times about their traumatic experiences were less ill, in better moods and experienced increased immune function when compared to others who wrote about more banal themes. Students reported these effects lasting even six weeks later. Another study using students with a history of depression, found excessive and cathartic writing significantly lowered their symptoms as long as six months.

Several studies into art therapy show increases in coping and quality of life and improvement in depression and fatigue and even helped improve speech in children with cerebral palsy.

Lovely, vivacious 88-year old “Louise” was interviewed by Dr. James Aw as he made connections between the arts and a vital old age. Aw described Louise as his much admired patient, so energetic and positive that she made him feel younger. Digging a little to find her secret source of youth and enthusiasm, Louise shared “her passion for painting and art.” Aw muses that there must be relationship between good health and the arts. Vital and vigorous octogenarians in his practice “tend to be ardent aficionados of the arts – or have hobbies that tap into a creative aspect of their personality.”

The Nordic nations are hot on the research trail concerning longevity and quality of life as it relates to the arts. A 15-year Swedish study claims measurable relationships between healthy old age and numbers of visits to concerts, museums and art shows (among other things).

The humungous Nord-Trøndelag Health Study had had similar findings with some unexpected twists. They found that culture and art is healthful whether you are actively engaged (singing in a choir) or passively listening from an audience. Slight differences showed up between genders, but perhaps enough to cause arguments at home. For instance health benefits as passive viewers of art score higher for men, while women seem to need a more personal involvement.

Economics are the Leviathan of modern health care and one we are battling mightily at the moment. Yet a new study found art even supplies economic benefits in medicine. Incorporating art into treatment via displays, performances and one-on-one with patients results in shorter hospital visits and lowered medication needs. Adding art creates a more inviting workplace also, with measurably happier employees who remain longer at their jobs.

Perhaps this is why six in ten arts programs are covered by health-care institutions rather than public funds.

“Anecdotal evidence shows such programs can have an immense impact on some of the most costly aspects of our health system, a significant reduction in health-services costs – such as those related to hospital stays” claims Randy Cohen of Americans for the Arts.

On a lighter note, Russian artist Alexander Melamid runs his “Art Healing Ministry” in New York for finding joy, humor and absurdity in life through art. Melamid may attach a contraption he calls the “Art Blocker ” on visitors to prevent bombardment of the brain by “creatons” (art particles) where they are detoured to the heart to be “fully absorbed and assimilated for greater healing.”

After a visit to Melamid’s “clinic” (and laughing his head off), Dr. Jeremy Spiegel pondered his “treatment.” Experiencing the potency of art to heal depression, anxieties and compulsions, Spiegel struggled with his flippancy. Is this a sly joke on psychiatry, medicine, supplements and therapies of all kinds? He was particularly alarmed over the artist’s suggestion that “a great deal of belief is required to uncover truth, including when it comes to the scientific method.” Haven’t Christians been saying something like that for centuries? At any rate Spiegel intends to continue his friendship with Melamid and explore his unorthodox ideas on art-healing.

The arts are more intrinsic and necessary to human life than our wealth-oriented culture has admitted. Art, music and all forms of human artistic expression perhaps aren’t just electives to life; if the research is true, art may be one of the things that is helping to keep us alive as a culture and as individuals.

Thanks to: Society for the Arts in Healthcare, Americans for the Arts, The Joint Commission and the University of Florida Center for the Arts in Healthcare; artsresearchmonitor.com; National Institutes for Health; thenationalpost.com; Psychology Today; Dr. Jeremy Spiegel; Nord-Trøndelag Health Study; Philanthropy Journal.