June 20, 2023

I used to read National Geographic magazines at the dentist when I was a child. Decades later, I decided to subscribe on behalf of my young nephew but it turns out that I found it much more fascinating than he did. He’s left home but I’m still subscribing (although I think they must have had some impact because he’s now doing a PhD in Zoology). The magazines arrive once a month in my letterbox (how old fashioned is that) and in each volume I’m taken into worlds I’ll probably never visit and offered insights into research about science, about sociology, about history. And of course, there are always brilliant photographs. In this month’s edition (06.23), there’s in an article about the Vatican Museums, there’s a summary of something those of us who love the arts have always known: the power of our emotional response to art. And the science of that subject even has a name – neuroaesthetics. Here’s a quote from the article by Gulnaz Khan:

Research shows that engaging with art can activate the brain’s reward system, releasing chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Aesthetic experiences….are also associated with decreased loneliness, improved mood, and stress reduction. Some neuroscientists have even compared viewing art to the feeling of romantic love.

Khan points to a 2019 World Health Organisation analysis of more than 3,000 research studies which showed that artistic activities promote physical and psychological health. And more recently, there’s a 2022 pilot study in Belgium between a hospital and the Brussels city authority to test a ‘museum prescription’ as a supplementary treatment for burnout and anxiety.

Although I’ve always argued that the most important reason for governments to support art making and participation is because of the implicit value of the arts, I’m more than happy to argue the case that governments should buy us all a ticket to go the theatre or the museum or the gallery or the concert to make us feel better.