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  • Writer's pictureCarina Tse

Artistic expression and its effects on the human brain: How does art help you?

Do you love art? Do you like to mold things with clay, paint with watercolors, or sketch small drawings? Art is one of the most common forms of expression by humans. Not only is it a creative outlet, but art has hidden benefits to your brain and mental health in the long run. For these reasons and more, art therapy has become increasingly popular in today’s social media-filled environment, along with increased usage in the medical field.

The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as, "an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship." (1) This definition is being put to the test with clinical studies about art therapy and the results are looking promising.

(The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh)

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy has roots in art and psychotherapy, drawing on the therapeutic effects of creation. There are three methods of art therapy. The first method is to have someone create art while analyzing their art in a method called psychoanalysis. The therapist will be talking to the creator while they are creating in order to try to understand the creator’s ideas and feelings transferred into the art. The second method is when someone creates their art and explains it to another person, preferably to a therapist. Through this method, the creator can work with the therapist in understanding their feelings, while also acknowledging what the therapist has analyzed about the art. The final method is the most simple. It’s when the creation of art is used as a type of calming therapy. This is the most common form seen in social media and emphasizes the creation process instead of the art. Overall, the goal is to help the creator of the art go through a journey into their own inner thoughts and emotions and organize it into an understandable form. (1)

Additionally, art therapy is not limited to just paper and pencil–any form of art counts for this type of therapy. For example, adult coloring books, dance, yoga, writing, music, and self portraits are just some of the many different forms. (1) Studies have shown that art therapy can improve cognition, sensory motor function, self esteem, and reduce distress and conflict (1). Currently, there are many forms of art therapy and interpretation but the ultimate goal is to help the creator focus their thoughts and emotions.

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What does the data show about art therapy?

Art therapy has mainly been used for diagnosed anxiety disorders due to the calming effects of creating and participating in art. Mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) has been used along with stress reduction programs to reduce anxiety symptoms in patients with generalized anxiety disorder and serious medical conditions. In some cases, MBAT was more effective than cognitive behavior therapy, a common treatment for anxiety disorder. (2) Additionally, clinical trials have shown improvement in patients with depression with MBAT treatment.

Current research has begun to link art therapy with mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease due to many patients using artwork or drawings to express themselves when words fail them. Art therapy was shown to boost self esteem, self accomplishment, and improve the quality of life in patients with Alzheimer’s and mood disorders. (3) Future research is looking into art therapy’s use in other medical disorders, including schizophrenia, cognitive impairment, autism, dementia and researchers are hopeful that this cost-effective method will become more developed, researched and understood.

Author: Carina Tse

Medical Student, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM)


  1. Hu, J., Zhang, J., Hu, L., Yu, H., & Xu, J. (2021). Art Therapy: A Complementary Treatment for Mental Disorders. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 686005.

  2. Beerse, M. E., Van Lith, T., Pickett, S. M., & Stanwood, G. D. (2020). Biobehavioral utility of mindfulness-based art therapy: Neurobiological underpinnings and mental health impacts. Experimental biology and medicine (Maywood, N.J.), 245(2), 122–130.

  3. Shukla, A., Choudhari, S. G., Gaidhane, A. M., & Quazi Syed, Z. (2022). Role of Art Therapy in the Promotion of Mental Health: A Critical Review. Cureus, 14(8), e28026.

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