“Without art, we’re not human. The ability to imagine and to take that imagination and make it into reality is one of the things that is really distinctive about humans. Whether it’s painting, building airplanes, or figuring out how to make a paycheck last to the end of the month, it all stems from the same creative capacity. And there is no better way to flex that creativity muscle than to do art, be exposed to art, and to think about art.” - Agustín Fuentes(1)
We are innately creative beings. Without our active imagination, resourcefulness, and ability to innovate and problem-solve, we simply wouldn’t be here today. The evidence of our artistic sensibilities appear very early on in our evolutionary record, from tiny holes drilled into shells which were made into jewellery, body art or even just aesthetically beautiful tools which were made for practical daily use. “The earliest known evidence of ‘artistic behaviour’ is of human body decoration, including skin colouring with ochre and the use of beads, although both may have had functional origins(2).
“Art is very deep in human history.”(1)
In its myriad of forms, art is practised by almost all human cultures across the world and can be regarded as a defining characteristic of the human species. “In all societies today, the visual arts are intimately intertwined with music, dance, ritual (marking life landmarks, death, religion and politics) and language (poetry, song and story-telling).” Animal courtship and competition for dominance, as well as human rituals and communication, combine vocalisation, ritualised movement and visual display, so it is likely that the roots of music, dance and body decoration lie deep in the evolutionary history of the animal kingdom in its entirety(2).
As the brains of our hominid ancestors increased in size and tool-making became more advanced, our visuomotor and language circuits enlarged, suggesting that; “tool-making and language share a basis in the human capacity for complex goal-directed manual activity.”(2) So artistic creativity and communication lead to an increased brain size in our ancestors. Thus, in this one respect (among others) creativity helped drive the evolution of our species. Considering our long-standing, heavy reliance on our creative and artistic capacities, it is not surprising that undertaking manual and creative tasks are still beneficial today and are integral to our wellbeing and mental health.
Medical Humanities (noun) - an interdisciplinary field of medicine which includes the humanities, social science and the arts and their application to medical education and practice. The core strengths of the medical humanities are the imaginative nonconformist qualities and practices.
Many of us are educated or coaxed out of our natural creative impulses by the time we hit our teens, either by Western educational institutions and/or well-intentioned parents, who believe that pursuing a creative path in life - which can lead to struggle and instability - will distract from academic studies which can lead to a better paying job/career, greater security and safety. But any path we take in life can lead to struggle and hardship, especially in these unstable times! The crime that is committed, however, is the discouragement of being creative and by the time we reach adulthood, many of us believe artistic pursuits and pass-times to be time-wasting and that you are either born with “the gift” of creativity or you aren’t. Contradicting this belief, studies are now revealing the importance of undertaking creative and manual tasks, showing that activities such as filling in colour books, playing with glitter and paint (especially watercolour paints we find!), singing or even doodling, can improve our overall health. It reduces cortisol levels, releases dopamine, increases happiness levels, boosts our overall mental and physical health and improves brain and immune function(3), (4). Studies are also revealing that involvement with the Arts also improves our social and emotional health and contributes to our general wellbeing(5).
It is now becoming more widely recognised that the dominant Western approach to medicine is hugely lacking - especially concerning chronic illnesses - and attempts are now being made to fill the gaping holes in this system, providing better, more open-minded approaches to treatment and human welfare with initiatives such as the UnLonely Project who are using “...creative expression to address a public health crisis (loneliness).” The recent psychotherapy form of Art Therapy, which uses art to enable patients to express, communicate and address emotional troubles is part of the growing medical humanities field.
Furthermore; “...research data that shows many promising trends demonstrating that patients' participation in the arts reduce use of pain medication, increase compliance with treatments, and shortened lengths of stay in hospitals. The arts are also being used to create safer hospital environment and to introduce nature into medical settings and art on previously sterile wall space. As a result, both patient and caregiver stress is measurably reduced, quality of care is increased, and costs of treatment go down.”(6)
“Stillness is where creativity and solutions to problems are found.” - Eckhart Tolle
Different States of Mind - DMN + TPN
There exists two states within the mind which can be compared to a light switch - the DMN and the task positive network (TPN). The DMN is labelled as “default” because it represents the mind in a neutral state without a mental or physical focal point. In this state your mind wanders, daydreams, imagines and recalls memories. The TPN is activated when engaged fully in a mental or physical task. The mind cannot exist in both states simultaneously, just as a light switch can only be either on or off. The brain evolved to balance the DMN and TPN and we only have the mental power to run a single network at a time. In modern cerebral humans overactivity in the DMN is associated with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.
The Default Mode Network (DMN) + Mental Illness
When we take a step back and watch our thoughts, we often realise that our minds are fixed in a counter-productive, aimless state, preoccupied with random thoughts jumping erratically from memories to imaginings, to plans and goals. This compulsive, unconscious thinking or “spontaneous mode” is termed in psychological literature as “task-unrelated thought and in neuroscience the “Default Mode Network (DMN)” and is predominantly negative and purposeless.
“Your mind is an instrument, a tool. It is there to be used for a specific task, and when the task is completed, you lay it down. As it is, I would say about 80 to 90 percent of most people’s thinking is not only repetitive and useless, but because of its dysfunctional and often negative nature, much of it is also harmful. Observe your mind and you will find this to be true. It causes a serious leakage of vital energy. This kind of compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterizes an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.” - Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
This mind-wandering activity takes up an estimated 50% of our waking hours and studies into this state of mind are shedding light on mental illnesses; “Disorders like ADHD and anxiety and depression aren’t totally disconnected from what normally goes on in the mind,”...“There’s this ordinary ebb and flow of thoughts, where you’re moving from mind-wandering to sticky thoughts to goal-directed thoughts. ... We think of these disorders as exaggerated versions of those sorts of ordinary thoughts.”(7) Meditation and mindfulness involves learning how to restore this natural balance, training your mind to be in the TPN for longer stretches, in a world that favours the DMN. Shifting out of the DMN has been shown to improve symptoms in those with mental health conditions(8).
A Wandering Mind is A Creative Mind
On the flipside, a growing body of research has linked daydreaming with creativity and mind-wandering; “In highly creative people, psychologists have observed a tendency toward a variation on mind-wandering known as “positive-constructive daydreaming,” in which has also been associated with self-awareness, goal-oriented thinking and increased compassion.”(7), (8) So the DMN is not a bad state of mind of inherently negative, but spending too much time in that mental state can have negative health benefits. Especially if those thoughts begin to run the show. So, in order to gain control over our thoughts so that they don’t rule our minds and our lives, and to achieve mental health and stability while developing our creative potentials, the best thing to do (which we personally recommend as it changed our lives!) is to practice a form of meditation. We list a few of their profound mental and physical health benefits on our Meditation + Neuroplasticity page.
Philosopher and co-founder of The School of Life Alain de Botton discusses in his talk 'Art as Therapy', the importance of art and culture for our mental balance and wellbeing, and how it can provide guidance in times of distress by easing “the aches and pains of the soul”, and our fears of mortality.
“Art is our new religion and museums are our cathedrals.” “We are very vulnerable, fragile creatures in...need of support and we generally don’t get it...culture can support us in our life.” “...(We can use) art as a source of help with our problems, our innermost problems, problems of the soul...”.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up” - Picasso
Check out this great talk from The School of Life
“Bread for all, and roses too” - Helen Todd
“Bread and roses” is the idea that we need more than mere physical sustenance to live. Living on just “bread” alone would be mere survival without “roses” which represents all the things that feed our spirit and soul - the arts, culture, music, dancing, spending time with the people we love, poetry, philosophy, the things that inspire us and the things we enjoy doing the most whether it be stone skipping, tree shaping or foraging for fungi.
“...our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way we have strip mined the Earth, for a particular commodity… We have to be careful that we use this gift (of the human imagination) wisely… and the only way we can do this is to see our creativity capacities for the richness they are.” - Sir Ken Robinson
Sir Ken Robinson, Educationalist and author of ‘Finding your Element’ argues the case that creativity is as important in education as literacy and that it should be given equal status. The education system and the workplace both stigmatise mistakes, cultivating fear and sapping our creative potential, thus “...educating people out of their creative capacities.” In this inspiring TED talk 'Do Schools Kill Creativity?' Robinson discusses passion, finding our element, self-fulfillment and the errors of the education system.
Check out this great TED Talk
Bring Out The GLITTER!
I want to spotlight and celebrate for a moment, the playful, freeing aspect of creativity which I (Sophie) love so much and which is encouraged only in children, artists and art students. It should be normal for us to see adults doodling with oversized glitter crayons, the tip of their tongue poking out the side of their crayon-covered mouths in concentration! But being playful, creative and having the freedom to express ourselves is suppressed more and more as we grow up, and the joyful experience of sitting down to just create is frowned upon and belittled. This innate artistic instinct and our ability to express ourselves creatively is consequently lost and forgotten, to the detriment of our physical and mental wellbeing. But it’s never too late to pick up a pencil / paintbrush and start doodling. We can doodle and play our way to health and happiness(3), (4)!
I have personally experienced art as a powerful and effective form of therapy and usually I find myself at my creative potential during the times I’m struggling the most - apart from when I’m struggling with chronic fatigue! Whether I’m playing with paint, watercolours, collaging or sewing, it’s an amazing tool which absorbs your mind and body and feeds the soul.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” - George Bernard Shaw