Take Two Monets and Call Me in the Morning

Today’s blog post is written by Jordan Simmons, Senior Account Executive, PatronManager. 

No less a medical luminary than Florence Nightingale once said, “Little as we know about the way in which we are affected by form, by color, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect. Variety of form and brilliancy of color in the object presented to patients are an actual means of recovery.” A new pilot program being run by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts aims to test that position; the museum will now allow doctors to “prescribe” museum visits for patients under their care!

Doctors that are members of the Médecins francophones du Canada, a professional organization of French-Canadian physicians, are now able to send up to 50 patients, along with their caregivers, to experience the museum free of charge. As quoted in the Museum’s press release, Nathalie Bondil, Director General and Chief Curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, says, “I am convinced that in the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century. Cultural experiences will benefit health and wellness, just as engaging in sports contributes to fitness.”

The MMFA is at the forefront of research into wellbeing and the arts, with 10 clinical studies currently underway on how art can impact outcomes in the areas of eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual challenges, cancer survivors, as well as those living with heart conditions, epilepsy, language or sensory disorders, and mental health issues. They are also currently studying how exposure to art affects seniors and people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’m sure anyone reading this blog post can probably recount dozens of artistic encounters that have made their heart race, calmed them down, made them cry, focused their mind, or provoked other emotions — the fact that art affects us seems obvious on the face of it. But how much real scientific evidence is actually out there that proves that experiencing art has a positive effect on our health? Well, doctors who have hooked people up to MRI machines can see areas of the brain lighting up in response to art; and blood tests prove that people leaving museums have lower levels of cortisol, the stress-causing hormone, than when they entered. Lower levels of stress are excellent for a whole panoply of illnesses and can aid in healing.

Studies are also starting to reveal, that while passively consuming or observing art may be good for us, creating art is perhaps even better. According to the Mayo Clinic, seniors over 70 that regularly engaged in creative crafts projects had a significantly lower risk of cognitive decline than those who engaged in other activities, including reading books.

In another study, two groups participated in a ten-week art class. In one, the students worked with their hands creating work unique to themselves. The other group’s class was more of an art history lecture, where participants learned about the context of a particular piece of artwork and discussed its meaning. The students’ brains were scanned both before and after these classes, and the group that produced art saw gains in the areas of the brain responsible for self-reflection, self-control, memory, and introspection.

Museums and cultural institutions have been offering educational and therapeutic opportunities to patrons for years now — and although many have felt the positive impacts of art on our lives and health and could speak about it anecdotally, it is gratifying to find that science finds a basis in fact for these experiences as well. As more studies of this kind are completed, we may leave the doctor’s office with a prescription for a Choose-Your-Own Subscription package!

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