It is often helpful to distinguish two principal ways in which we thing about art and the fundamental biological needs they meet. [The EXPRESSIVE domain of art involves the creation of art, the representation of ideas and states of mind to oneself and others) and the RECEPTIVE domain involves the perception of art, and the efforts to understand the message.]  

Both activities involve the coordination of numerous cognitive and and distributed physiological processes.  Mind and body cooperate (see “embodied cognition“) in various context-dependent ways to both express and receive works of art.

In ART & ORGANISM, one of the key arguments for the importance of exploring the connections between art and biology has always been health—the meeting of the most basic of motivational needs in Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs as we interpret them biologically (BIOLOGICAL NEEDS).

We are all familiar with art therapy … most of us have probably enjoyed the anxiolytic effect of self-expression.  Even more, the healthful effects of aesthetic experience.  But the connection to biology is generally vague and intuitive, often described in anecdotes and brief narratives or small, incompletely controlled experiments.

But now we can speak with more authority—the kind that affects public policy and legislation.  A blog I see every week or so (The Painter’s Keys) has reported that “ ‘In Canada, doctors are prescribing museum visits with the cost of admission covered by universal healthcare.” ‘We know that art stimulates neural activity,’ says Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general and chief curator, Nathalie Bondil. The program, piloted last year, is an extension of the museum’s work with their existing Art and Health Committee, where they participate in clinical trials studying the effects of art on people with eating disorders, cancer, epilepsy, mental illness, and Alzheimer’s disease.”

They are building on a report in the British Medical Journal. Here is the abstract of “The art of life and death: 14 year follow-up analyses of associations between arts engagement and mortality in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing” by  Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe. The entire article is athttps://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/367/bmj.l6377.full.pdf

  • Abstract
    • Objective: To explore associations between different frequencies of arts engagement and mortality over a 14 year follow-up period. Design Prospective cohort study.
    • Participants:  English Longitudinal Study of Ageing cohort of 6710 community dwelling adults aged 50 years and older (53.6% women, average age 65.9 years, standard deviation 9.4) who provided baseline data in 2004-05.
    • Intervention:  Self reported receptive arts engagement (going to museums, art galleries, exhibitions, the theatre, concerts, or the opera).
    • Measurement: Mortality measured through data linkage to the National Health Service central register.
    • Results:  People who engaged with receptive arts activities on an infrequent basis (once or twice a year) had a 14% lower risk of dying at any point during the follow-up (809/3042 deaths, hazard ratio 0.86, 95% confidence interval 0.77 to 0.96) compared with those who never engaged (837/1762 deaths). People who engaged with receptive arts activities on a frequent basis (every few months or more) had a 31% lower risk of dying (355/1906 deaths, 0.69, 0.59 to 0.80), independent of demographic, socioeconomic, health related, behavioural, and social factors. Results were robust to a range of sensitivity analyses with no evidence of moderation by sex, socioeconomic status, or social factors. This study was observational and so causality cannot be assumed.
    • Conclusions: Receptive arts engagement could have a protective association with longevity in older adults. This association might be partly explained by differences in cognition, mental health, and physical activity among those who do and do not engage in the arts, but remains even when the model is adjusted for these factors.

Read the entire newsletter: THE ARTIST’S KEYS (Dec 20)  …

Follow through:  There is an abundance of literature connecting arts and the practice of medicine in most all domains of the health professions; several examples worth checking are:

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.