Art and Brain Science

Art and brain science

How arts can improve your wellbeing

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a worldwide mental health repercussion. Isolation, fear of death, increasing unemployment and uncertainty will eventually affect resilient individuals. Many people are reporting low mood as a response to the situation we are living. Research conducted across the world is already suggesting an increase in mental illnesses due to this pandemic (1).

Even if containing the spread of the virus is critical to get us through COVID-19, we should also make sure that our minds keep in the best shape possible during these times. There is a lot of information about protocols to prevent or reduce the likelihood of exposure. You might be already using a face mask when doing your shopping, singing happy birthday while washing your hands and using alcohol gel when you are on the move. But do you know what to do when it comes to protect your mental health?

As more transition into remote working, people start to familiarise with digital social interactions and their consequential ‘zoom fatigue’ effects (2). Just imagine all the extra cognitive effort needed to interpret people’s body language when you can only draw non-verbal cues from faces on the screen of your computer (3). Unfortunately, this ‘zoom fatigue’ effect could also alter the frequency in which you would connect to your inner circle of family and friends, cutting down on the essential social support needed to maintain both physical and psychological health.

If you have experienced low mood or have felt sometimes unable to cope effectively with work, you are not on your own. So how can we boost up our mental resilience? Already a connection has been identified between our brain’s rewards pathways and individual resilience processes (4). This must be why eating seem to be a popular coping mechanism for stress, yet research show it won’t decrease stress levels leading only to serious weight gain (5).

Nevertheless, there are other ways to activate your rewards system that won’t change your body shape. One particularly effective way to stimulate brain reward structures is through art consumption. Music, theatre, dance, poetry, architecture, sculpture and paintings have inspired and provided of an identity to different cultures over human history, showing an undeniable connection between art expressions and the cultural beliefs of a specific period.

The link between arts and mental health was noticed from early times, leading to art-based interventions. Since the 1990’s art has emerged as an alternative mental health therapy in the USA and Europe, becoming part of the social care agenda and has started to be taken more seriously by national health policy makers, like the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in the UK. In 2015, the NIHR funded a systematic review concluding that art-based therapies are acceptable cost-effective treatments (6). Considering the limited success rates of traditional treatments, such as drug prescription or talking therapies, art-based therapies could help further enhance mental health wellbeing.

Furthermore, art therapy can help to express complex feelings or sensations avoiding verbal interpretations while allowing for diversion and emotional escape, even during imprisonment conditions (7). However, if you don’t feel like doing a creative activity on your own (like painting, sculpting, singing, dancing, etc.) you could still reap some benefits from appreciating someone else’s art. Therefore, consider visiting, in person or virtually, your favourite museums, watching your preferred plays or listen to music regularly to lift up your mood and improve your mental wellbeing.


  1. Torales, J., O’Higgins, M., Castaldelli-Maia, J. M., & Ventriglio, A. (2020). The outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on global mental health. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 0020764020915212.
  2. Nadler, R. (2020). Understanding “Zoom fatigue”: Theorizing spatial dynamics as third skins in computer-mediated communication. Computers and Composition, 58, 102613.
  3. Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Connecting through technology during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic: Avoiding “Zoom Fatigue”.
  4. Richter, A., Krämer, B., Diekhof, E. K., & Gruber, O. (2019). Resilience to adversity is associated with increased activity and connectivity in the VTA and hippocampus. NeuroImage: Clinical, 23, 101920.
  5. Van Strien, T. (2018). Causes of emotional eating and matched treatment of obesity. Current diabetes reports, 18(6), 35.
  6. Uttley, L., Scope, A., Stevenson, M., Rawdin, A., Buck, E. T., Sutton, A., … & Wood, C. (2015). Systematic review and economic modelling of the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of art therapy among people with non-psychotic mental health disorders. Health Technology Assessment, 19(18).
  7. Gussak, D. (2007). The effectiveness of art therapy in reducing depression in prison populations. International Journal of Offender therapy and comparative Criminology, 51(4), 444-460.