“Art can permeate the very deepest part of us where no words exist.” -Eileen Miller
“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.”
The concept of the arts as medicine dates back to antiquity, and has drawn increasing interest
from both the medical and scientific communities. Medical professionals are finally beginning to
recognize and understand the role that art and music play in the healing process. Arts in
medicine programs are emerging not only in the US but worldwide as doctors see that their patients’
exposure to the creative arts not only increases their psychological well-being and positive
emotions but also decreases pain, stress, and negative emotions. Breast cancer patients in
particular may suffer greatly from adjustment disorders, depression, and anxiety after painful
surgeries, which can generate feelings of fear, anger, guilt, and emotional repression. Through
the use of creativity and imagination there is a deeper power of healing available to ease these
symptoms of “dis-ease” and treat the whole person, not just the illness.
Julene Johnson, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at USCF, is currently running a
study measuring the health impacts of singing in a choir. “The nice thing about the arts,” she
says, “is our long, long history of using music and arts for healing across thousands of years and the fact that it’s relatively low cost to implement.” Numerous studies show that a window
view looking out at nature or the placing of calming artwork in patients’ rooms help to promote healing, relieve pain and stress, and increase overall well-being. Many hospitals are rethinking
how to create “healing environments” as they update their healthcare settings. Studies have
shown that art therapy for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy decreases depression,
anxiety, and fatigue, thus improving their coping resources.
In his book Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and
Staying Well, Caryle Hirschberg writes, “Many researchers believe that music and art provide a way to bypass the “static” of purely rational thought and stimulate deeper parts of the brain – the
limbic (or pleasure system) – that may be the key to the mind-body healing response.” In nearly
all cultures, music and rhythm have been used as forces of healing. In ancient Greece, Apollo
was the god of both music and medicine. Barbara Crowe, past president of the National
Association of Music Therapy, suggests that music and rhythm stimulate deeper parts of the
brain that are the seat of ritual in tribal societies. “There is a clear, distinct parallel between
traditional shamanism and the practices we do in music therapy today.” Many find listening to
Buddhist monks chanting will put them in a meditative or peaceful frame of mind, while slowing
their breathing. Scientifically, the sound of calming, rhythmic music causes the brain to release
endorphins or natural opiates, which can reduce pain, influence heart and respiratory rates,
lessen stomach contractions and enhance the immune system. Researchers have found that a
common rhythm noted in rituals around the world (four to seven beats per second) is correlated
with frequencies of electrical activity in the brain associated with spontaneous imagery, ecstatic
states, and creativity. Many tribal communities will gather to clap, dance, and sing healing chants
for hours around a “sick” tribal member. One of my favorite “recovery” stories describes the man
who listened to the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky every day during his long bout with leukemia
and truly feels it was the reason for his total remission.
Plato expresses his views on music education for children in The Republic, book 3, “Musical
training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way
into the inward place of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace.” In modern,
layman’s terms, there is nothing better than listening to YOUR favorite music, be it show tunes,
country, or classical to send your soul soaring! Abraham Maslow coined the phrase, “peak
experience,” which is akin to an ecstatic or religious experience – “you feel as though you are
close to a powerful spiritual force that seems to lift you out of yourself.” How exhilarating to
forget oneself listening to music, if only for a short while, and merge our limited self-conscious
with universal consciousness — a healing experience for sure!
This same relationship between focused attention and a deep sense of enjoyment can be found
by engaging in art activities, whether in a class or by oneself. A 2012 study of women with breast
cancer published in Stress and Health found that a mindfulness-based art therapy program
helped patients not only reduce stress and anxiety, but also decreased depression and fatigue.
The study looked at their brain MRIs and found significant changes in the cerebral blood flow in
regions corresponding to reward and the regulation of stress response. Not only did producing
art reduce their anxiety levels and improve their wellbeing, it also helped them express the
innermost thoughts and fears with which they wrestled during diagnosis and treatment. Art gives
a voice to self-expression when words are not enough. Simply the act of painting, collage, or
sculpting can lift one out of oneself, induce a meditative calm within, put one in the
“zone” where one can completely lose track of time and forget pain and a cancer diagnosis.
Cindy Perlis, director of the UCSF Art for Recovery Program, has watched thousands of patients
-most of whom have stated that they have no artistic talent – create soulful self-portraits, make
fiery masks and spirit houses, embellish old shoes with dazzling glitter and shiny faux jewelry,
and blend words with paint strokes to make striking visual statements. Even those whose
futures were bleak found “healing” when they found art, according to Perlis.
What a gift to breast cancer and other patients that the medical community is finally recognizing
the positive impact of both art and music on symptom management and recovery. Not only can
these two powerful modalities bring back joy and well-being, but also help strengthen the
immune system by uplifting the spirit, renewing energy, and enabling patients to positively
embrace life again. Hallelujah!
As a twenty-five-year breast cancer survivor and professional artist/music-lover, I have experienced firsthand how powerful listening to Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, Bach’s “B-minor Mass,”Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” or Pharrell Williams “Happy” can be while painting in my light-drenched studio. Deep in the flow-state, all rational thinking is stopped and I am flooded with endorphins and JOY! What a perfect prescription not only to restore mind, body, and spirit but also to live every minute filled with grace and gratitude.
The Art of Healing/UC San Francisco www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/12/121776/art-healing
The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature
Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying
Well, Caryle Hirschberg & Marc Ian Barasch