From developing our brains to keeping us healthy: the positive effects of art | Me and my National Art Pass

While the positive effects of exercise on our mental health have long been known, the benefits of art are only starting to be fully appreciated. Research by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that art helps boost confidence, making us feel more engaged and resilient. It can also alleviate anxiety, depression and stress.

Art Fund, a charity that supports museums and galleries financially, recently conducted the Calm and collected study, which found that while 63% of respondents had visited a museum or gallery to de-stress at some point, only 6% go regularly. It seems that while most people have experienced the positive impact of art first-hand, it’s not something they think they need habitually like physical exercise.

“In our lives, arts are marginalised and seen as a nice-to-have. We don’t realise we are wired to these experiences,” says Susan Magsamen, co-author of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us. “We talk about meditation and mindfulness as a way to make us feel better; the arts also allow us to change our state of mind. We are born with 100bn neurons, which we need to connect to each other. The more salient art is, the greater it contributes to the strengthening of synapse connections.”

While many of these connections are forged in early childhood, art can be beneficial throughout your life. “It’s never too late to take advantage of aesthetic experiences, to build development and get a brain that’s stronger,” says Magsamen. “Art destigmatises complex human emotions that we often can’t understand because the world is so complex.”

The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester: galleries and museums are ‘inspirational places … open to everyone’, says Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund. Photograph: Lee Mawdsley/Science Museum Group

While we are only starting to understand the impact of art on our actual brain structure, its positive effects overall are being recognised. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified art as a contributing factor in reducing mental illness, loneliness and even ageing. A study of deprived communities in London found that, of the people who engaged with the arts, 79% ate more healthily and 82% enjoyed greater wellbeing. The government estimates that arts participation has saved the NHS £168m due to a reduction in GP visits, while, last winter, many galleries and museums were used as warm banks where people could go to get out of the cold.

But galleries and museums are far more than just physical spaces. “They are inspirational places in every community, which are open to everyone,” says Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund. “You can discover art and ideas, meet people and find out more about what you are interested in. Studies show that these are spaces where you can discuss major societal issues in a neutral space and open up ideas, inviting you to explore and promote a sense of wellbeing.”

The mixture of the quiet, calm atmosphere, alongside stimulating ideas – whether a controversial modern sculpture, second world war propaganda, or the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh – is what makes galleries and museums so unique. “They are de-stressing environments. They give you a sense of purpose and control,” says Waldman. And, in the UK, we are fortunate that they are all around us. While we often associate museums and galleries with big cities, The Mendoza Review, a government-funded study, found that 55% of the English public live within walking distance of at least one museum.

A great way to make the most of the UK’s museums, galleries and historic buildings is through Art Fund’s National Art Pass, which gives free entry to hundreds of places and 50% off major exhibitions at the likes of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Passes are available as individual or double memberships, with a discounted under 30s pass costing just £33.75.

National Art Pass holders benefit from 50% off exhibitions at museums such as the V&A. Photograph: David Parry/V&A. Exhibition: Chanel Fashion Manifesto at the V&A

It’s not only enjoyable to visit these cultural venues, it’s good for our brain development, too, as Magsamen has pointed out. In recent years, neuroscience has even used MRI technology to allow us to see how art changes our brains and how it can positively influence our health, wellbeing and feeling of community. “We know art, in various forms, engages the brain’s sensory areas – for example, visual art stimulates the point of visual sensation – but then all the sensory areas somehow converge on the area at the front of the brain,” says Ahmad Beyh, a neuroscientist who has researched the topic at University College London. Interestingly, this area, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, is also associated with decision-making and reward processing.

“We experience art by engaging areas associated with rewards. That area is also involved when people are focused on a task and thinking about themselves. Pleasurable experience is how we define ourselves. Essentially, art almost defines us,” says Beyh. He has found that the more beautiful we find something, the more our brain reacts to it. “The stronger the experience of beauty and art, the stronger the biometric correlation of activity in those areas of the brain.”

In fact, beauty is a concept that you can delve into deeper at London’s Wellcome Collection’s upcoming Cult of Beauty exhibition, which explores how it has changed through different times and cultures.

We’re only just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding how art affects our brain development, health and general wellbeing. In time, it may emerge that we need to keep our brains stimulated and active at galleries and museums in the same way we do our bodies at the gym – and in the UK we are lucky to be able to take advantage of so many world-leading arts spaces on our doorstep.

The National Art Pass gives free entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and historic buildings across the UK, and 50% off major exhibitions at the likes of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Passes are available as individual or double memberships, and you can save 25% on your first year of membership with Direct Debit

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