Arts in health: opportunities within health theory

These theoretical developments over the last 100 years have provided a range of opportunities for the application of the arts in health. In the fact file in Part IV, we will look in more detail at how the arts have been found to affect various dimensions of different health conditions. However, if we take a broader view for now, following the biopsychosocial model, the arts have been shown to have effects at all three levels.

Bio-The brain

Physiological research into the arts over the past century has demonstrated a variety of effects on different organs. For example, there has been a wealth of research on the impact of the arts on the brain. The multi-sensory aspects of many types of arts engagement, involving hearing, seeing, touching, and moving, mean that a wide range of brain areas have been shown to be involved in arts perception, including the sensory cortex, auditory cortex, visual cortex, and various rhythmic processing centres including the primary sensorimotor areas.(34,35) Furthermore, as many arts activities involve an emotional response, areas critical to memory, reward, and emotion processing also have been found to be affected, such as the amygdala, medial orbitofrontal cortex, and hippocampus.(36)

Not only are different areas of the brain activated by arts engagement, but they have also been shown to be structurally altered. For example, people who learn music from an early age have been shown to have larger motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions and can have enhanced brain plasticity.(37,38) Music listening can also induce structural changes in grey matter (which contains, among other things, the cell bodies of neurons) in people who have experienced a stroke.(39) And children with one-sided paralysis (hemiplegia) who practise magic tricks have been shown to have increased integrity of white matter (which connects different parts of grey matter together) in the brain and greater activation of the part of the brain affected by the hemiplegia.(40)

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