The title of a recent documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint, sums up the findings of a growing body of research into the cognitive effects of making art. The movie demonstrates how drawing and painting stimulated memories in people with dementia and enabled them to reconnect with the world. People with dementia aren't the only beneficiaries. Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer, too. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people.
The beneficial effects of creating aren't dependent on a person's skill or talents. "It's the process, not the product," says Megan Carleton, an art therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).
Why art is good medicine
Decades of research have demonstrated that in people with dementia and other progressive neurological diseases, the ability to create art remains long after speech and language have diminished. Research has also shown that creating visual art can reduce stress and promote relaxation in people who are hospitalized or homebound due to illness.
Carleton, who like many art therapists is also a licensed mental health counselor, makes a variety of media — from acrylic paints to iPads — available to people who are undergoing cancer therapy at MGH. She has also worked with veterans and people with Alzheimer's disease in other environments. "Once people engage, they often realize they are having fun and the time passes faster," she says.
She says art also has an important role in helping people through particularly difficult times, including facing the end of life. "Working with a trained art therapist can give them a way to express themselves in a safe environment to help them get to the next stage more at peace."
She has seen people string necklaces to give to friends and relatives, make books and videos to memorialize their experiences, and even build boxes to contain their expressions of anger and frustration.
Why art is good prevention
Recent research suggests that to stave off cognitive decline, doing creative activities may be more effective than merely appreciating creative works. A 2017 report from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging indicated that people over 70 who did crafts projects had a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment than did those who read books. In a 2014 German study, retirees who painted and sculpted had greater improvements in spatial reasoning and emotional resilience than did a similar group who attended art appreciation classes.
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