Art for Health and Happiness? Why we should all have art at home and work

There’s nothing wrong with a blank wall. Minimalism, after all, has its own kind of beauty. But while it should fit comfortably with the surrounding décor and, if possible, enhance it, art in the home, or in the workplace is about much more than a choice of interior design. It plays an important role in our emotional and physical wellbeing.


Artwork has a powerful effect on the human psyche. This was something our ancestors understood intuitively, investing enormous time and effort to create works of art that would last for centuries and that would continue to influence generations to come. That historic value and emphasis on art has become increasingly unfashionable, (in the West at least), ever since the industrial revolution. And, as a consequence, art has increasingly become devalued. As it turns out, however, our ancestors were right and those advocates of the purely practical, rational and useful were quite wrong. Ironically, we have the practical, rational and useful field of neurobiology, and one neurobiologist in particular, to thank for this discovery!


Art, it turns out, has the power to dramatically alter brain chemistry. Professor Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London and author of ‘Inner Vision – An Exploration of Art and the Brain’, has spent decades researching, “the relationship of visual art to the functioning of the visual brain, the field which we refer to as neuroesthetics.” In a groundbreaking study, he mapped the brain activities of a series of volunteers as they viewed 28 different works of artwork.


What he found was that the volunteers experienced surges of dopamine in the frontal cortex of the brain. Dopamine is responsible for what we think of as the ‘feel good’ factor while this area of the brain is involved in intense feelings  of desire, pleasure, affection and romantic love. Zeki also noted that the pleasure reaction to viewing art was “immediate”. In other words, Zeki may have pinpointed the true reason for the prominence of art in so many civilizations and for so many thousands of years. His research reveals that viewing art gives us the same pleasure as falling in love. And this is simply part of the way we our brains are wired.

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We are talking about considerably more than just a ‘mood lifting’ effect here and this has many potential applications. In previous research, for example, hospital patients experienced a reduction in suffering and increased recovery speeds when viewing art was made part of their daily ‘routines’. This is because brain chemistry plays an enormous part in the healing processes of the body.


This new understanding of the power of artwork could help to improve the health and quality of life of, well, most of us in the stressful, fast paced lives that we live today. It could, and it really, really should, restore the place of artwork in our society to the level of respect that our ancestors once gave it.

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Art for health, mental and physical, for happiness and joy and a sense of wellbeing? That sounds like something the most practical, rational utilitarian of the industrial revolution would have to agree with!