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The Power of Art: Not One Size Fits All

Updated: Mar 19

On neuroaesthetics, Arts in Health and Creative Arts Therapies.  

There is a lot going on in the field of neuroaesthetics, a branch of research that studies the neurological mechanisms involved in the experience of beauty. The Arts in Health movement often uses this to demonstrate the effects of the arts on well-being and health. But not all art is for everyone. ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL. Creative arts therapists have known this for decades. But what exactly is the difference between an aesthetic experience in the arts and the methodical use of the arts in the creative arts therapies?

In this blog, I offer my thoughts on this question. I will begin with a brief explanation of neuroaesthetics and a description of an aesthetic experience before focusing on aesthetic experiences in the interest of health.

Neuroaesthetics and neuroarts

The field of research that studies the neurological mechanisms involved in the experience of beauty is called neuroesthetics. The branch of research that is specifically concerned with how the experience of beauty in the perception and creation of art activates the brain and how this contributes to health is called neuroarts. This is a relatively young field of research that has gained momentum in the last 15 years due to increasing technical possibilities such as EEG and (f)MRI. These make it possible to study what happens in the brain and body when art is perceived and made, and how this contributes to health. Research is being done on both the brain activity of making art and the appreciation of looking at art. This is called the aesthetic experience, and it is precisely this that is said to contribute to health. But what exactly is an aesthetic experience?

Aesthetic experience = meaningful experience

Everyone can remember a moment when the power of art was palpable: a piece of music that gave you goosebumps, a painting that moved you, or a dance performance that triggered something in you; it had impact and meaning. An aesthetic experience is a meaningful experience. And that goes beyond a sense of beauty. An aesthetic experience is an experience that touches you, stimulates you, excites you, makes you curious. And that can be beauty, but it can also be raw ugliness, sadness, awe, or disgust. So an aesthetic experience can encompass the whole range of emotions. It is when something challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, takes you out of your comfort zone, that it creates space for change.

If I were to ask you what exactly it is that moves you in this way, you would probably find it very difficult to explain in words. And that's because an aesthetic experience activates neural networks that are not linguistic. You are not fully aware of it, but it is a felt knowing that can have a great impact on your well-being.

How does an aesthetic experience activate the brain?

First, it is good to know that many of the sensory signals we receive, such as what we hear, see, and feel, activate various sensorimotor networks and the neural reward system. These neural networks are connected to brain areas involved in processing bodily sensations, feelings, and (emotional) memory, particularly the autonomic nervous system and the limbic system. These areas control your physical and emotional responses and occur at a subcortical level. This means that you are largely unaware of how sensory experiences are processed and drive your behavior and emotions. In fact, our functioning is largely controlled by these nonverbal and unconscious processes. The connection between these different neural networks is critical for healthy functioning.

And neuroscience research shows that meaningful experiences play a crucial role in establishing and strengthening these connections. One important mechanism is neuroplasticity (see also my blog Neuroplasticity and Creative Arts Therapies).

In short, neurons that are repeatedly activated together become wired together. Neuroscientist Donald O. Hebb's statement "Cells that fire together, wire together" may sound familiar. Recent research shows that strong sensory activation is required to create a real connection. And especially meaningful experiences play an important role. Meaningful in the sense that an experience has an impact. Like an aesthetic experience. That is why I like Daniel Siegel's statement "Inspire to (re)wire". And what else but art creates meaningful experiences? So in that sense, the idea that aesthetic experiences in the arts promote health via neuroplasticity is quite logical.

It means not only that meaningful experiences play an important role in the development of the neural networks that are so important for healthy functioning, but also that every brain is unique, because everyone has had their own meaningful experiences. 

And this means that not all art will always contribute to everyone's well-being, because the unique way your brain is programmed based on your past experiences, your upbringing, and the culture you grew up in, among other things, also determines how you value making or viewing art and whether or not you have new aesthetic experiences.

A piece of music that brings tears of emotion to one person will leave another person unmoved.

An important neural system involved is the default mode network. This system is located in the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain and is activated when your attention is more inward, when you are letting your mind wander, thinking about things without a defined goal, or daydreaming. This is the neurological basis of the self. With a meaningful experience, the default mode network creates an "aha" moment, a felt knowledge that something is happening that gives you a new perspective on what you are looking at or creating.

In short, art par excellence can touch you, move you, release something in you. Make you live a meaningful experience. And the neural processes involved are usually not fully conscious. Meaningful experiences largely determine how they develop, and they are usually expressed less through language and more through the movement of the body.

They are therefore less influenced by language and cognition than by the acquisition of new meaningful experiences. And the arts are ideal for this. Yet, every brain is unique and this means that not all art will always contribute to everyone's well-being

Aesthetic experiences in the arts and health

In short, engaging in meaningful aesthetic experiences in the arts helps to activate and connect various neural networks that are important for healthy functioning. The sensory, non-linguistic, and non-cognitive nature of the arts explains why the arts in particular activate neural networks that are non-linguistic, often occur at an unconscious level, and primarily control subcortical processes involved in bodily sensations, feelings, and emotions. For people in whom these networks are fundamentally well functioning and connected, such experiences in the arts contribute to well-being. For vulnerable groups, it can prevent potential problems in the future. For example, viewing or making art together is known to contribute to togetherness, a sense of connection, and can prevent loneliness, for example. And because art activates subcortical networks that remain intact longer in people with dementia, for example, older people can engage in healthy play for longer, which contributes to meaningfulness.

However, it is a different story when these neural networks are less functional, there are fewer connections, or integration is disrupted, as is the case with many clients in (mental health) care. In many of these clients there is disintegration, for example because of negative experiences that have had an impact, such as trauma. Disintegration occurs, resulting in both psychological and physical symptoms. A person becomes unbalanced and this limits healthy and adaptive functioning.

For example, we know that several areas of the brain develop less well in children who grow up in insecure environments, and that fewer or no connections are made between the various subcortical areas involved in body sensations and emotions and the cortical areas involved in executive functions and making meaning. But traumatic events and chronic stress later in life also lead to disintegration. This disintegration leads to dysregulation of the stress response, immune and endocrine systems, among others. An imbalance develops in which cortical processes involved in cognitive processes or subcortical processes involved in bodily sensations and feelings take over. A person can then become stuck in thinking or feeling, limiting the adaptability that is the basis for healthy functioning.

Aesthetic experiences in the creative arts therapies

We have already seen that experiencing and experiencing the arts differs from person to person. But when the person in question needs help in restoring balance and increasing healthy and adaptive functioning, the alignment between the experience in an art form and the person comes very close. So how do you determine which art form, in which way, will lead to a meaningful experience that is attuned to the uniqueness of the person? In my opinion, this is the difference between Arts in Health and the methodical use of art forms in occupational therapy.


Understanding the art

And this is a profession. A profession for which occupational therapists are trained at a higher professional or masters level. An occupational therapist has knowledge of the human psyche, knows and masters the art form inside and out, and as a result applies the art form methodically to a variety of requests for help, tailored to the specific client. And that is what distinguishes the occupational therapist from the more verbal therapist and the artist. Therein lies the craft. The result is not just any experience, but focused experiences that are important to the client, that are meaningful, and that enable the client to regain balance and work toward healthier and more adaptive functioning. And the occupational therapist bases this, among other things, on the findings of (neuro)scientific research.

An Example from Art Therapy

It was described above that the neurological processes that drive healthy functioning are largely non-linguistic, non-cognitive and non-conscious. As a result, they are expressed less through language and more through the body and the movement and experience associated with it. Movement is felt 'in person' without the need for words.


This explains why disintegration and disregulation of these processes become visible and palpable in action- and experience-based visual therapy. For example, my own Ph.D. research revealed a clear relationship between material interaction, material experience and art product and mental health in terms of balance and adaptability.

By very systematically and specifically observing material interaction, material experience and art product, it becomes apparent whether and in what direction and to what extent there is an imbalance in thinking or feeling and to what extent adaptability is present.

For example, clients with a rational material interaction usually have an imbalance toward thinking. This is often accompanied by difficulty in making contact with and tolerating bodily sensations and feelings. They then tend to overregulate, for example through avoidance.

Clients who exhibit affective material interaction usually have an imbalance toward feeling. These clients have difficulty in adequately expressing or regulating body sensations and feelings, so they tend to take over (read more about this evidence-based method, ArTA, for art therapy observation and assessment here).

And because the underlying neurological processes are less easily influenced by language and cognition than by meaningful experiences, this relationship is reciprocal. By gaining insight into imbalance and adaptive capacity, the visual art form can be used in a very targeted way to allow the client to have specific experiences that contribute to restoring balance and increasing adaptive capacity. This is because different visual materials and techniques have different experiential qualities and activate different neural networks. For example, we know from (neuroscientific) research that materials with more intrinsic structure, such as pencil and marker, combined with linear techniques, such as drawing and coloring, are more likely to lead to a cognitive experience. And that materials with less intrinsic structure, such as watercolor and ecoline, combined with pictorial techniques such as blending and flowing, are more likely to produce an affective experience.


This means that the art therapist who has a good sense of the direction and degree of imbalance, based on systematic observation of material interaction, material experience and art product, can determine which art therapy interventions - materials, techniques and instructions - can be used methodically to restore balance and increase adaptive capacity.

For example, clients with an imbalance toward thinking will benefit most from affective experiences. And clients with an imbalance toward feeling benefit most from cognitive experiences. Through the methodical use of the visual art form, the therapist gently takes the client out of their comfort zone at a pace tailored to the client. Again, we have seen that this is where space is created for change, balance is restored, and adaptability is increased.

In short

Aesthetic experiences in the arts contribute to health by activating neural networks and the connections between them that are important for balanced and adaptive functioning. But not all arts work for everyone: one size does not fit all. Especially with clients in (mental) health care, where there is usually a disintegration and dysregulation of these neural networks, the use of the arts listens carefully. With knowledge of both the psyche and the art form, the art therapist is ideally positioned to use the art form methodically and specifically tailored to the client to restore balance and integration of neural networks and thus contribute to healthy(er) and (more) adaptive functioning.

Images: Unsplash


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