An elderly woman is seen with a paintbrush in her hand, smiling down at the paper on the table before her. A stroke of blue can be seen, but what stands out most about the scene is the smile on her face as she engages in art. Judy Holstein, who is now a board member at the Institute for Therapy Through the Arts (ITA), states as a part of an interview in a preceding clip, “The creative arts are a doorway. Once that doorway is open, wonderful worlds open up”.
The content above is part of a documentary called ‘I Remember Better When I Paint’, which shows how art based therapy can have a positive impact on the life of individuals with Alzheimer’s disorder. The documentary opens with John Zeisel, the president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care, talking about how while medication can prolong the life of Alzheimer’s patients, it does not ensure them a life that is worth living. Following this immediately, Dr. Robert C. Green speaks about how creative arts can help with exactly that, giving patients something to engage and resonate with.
The benefits of Art Therapy have, fairly recently, been brought to the limelight with the help of multiple studies researching its efficacy with various groups, inclusive of children, adults, as well as its use in family and group settings. But what exactly is Art Therapy?
In the Handbook of Art Therapy, Cathy A. Malchiodi talks about how the practice is based in the idea that creative processes can help individuals in the process of recovery, in addition to acting as an outlet for thoughts and feelings. Individuals are encouraged to not just find meaning but create it, while achieving insight and finding relief, working through experiences of trauma, and adding meaning to life. The novelty of the field has resulted in Art Therapy remaining largely undefined, and practices of the field are adapted along with the needs of the individual or of the group engaging in it.
As Malchiodi continues to elaborate, when regarded from a neuroscientific perspective, the efficacy of art therapy becomes clearer. The process of creating art can be responsible for engaging several parts of the brain at once such as the cortical, limbic, and midbrain systems. These are parts of the brain that are involved in symbolizing, decision making and planning, affect and emotion, as well as sensory and kinaesthetic activities. Further, art therapist Vija Lusebrink puts forth the ability of art and images to form a bridge between the body and the mind, helping understand emotional and physiological changes in the body. The process of creating art can mobilize multiple senses as well, which can help with the expression and processing of sensory memories. This can be a vital part of dealing with trauma.
Art Therapy and Flow
Gioia Chilton, an art therapist and art therapy professor, also highlights the role of ‘flow’ in Art Therapy. Put forth by Csìkszentmihályi, ‘flow’ as a psychological construct may be understood as a state of complete, unmatched engagement with the action being carried out, as if one is completely immersed in it. Have you ever suddenly had the motivation to complete an assignment, and sped through it without being distracted at all? Or been engrossed in a book so much so that you didn’t even realize the time flying by? The state of flow is also referred to by some as ‘being in the zone’.
The experience of flow can enhance well-being by bringing about positive emotions. Being able to pay attention to a stimulus effortlessly can mirror the effects of meditation in terms of effectively tuning out unnecessary stimuli, and increasing focus on one point. Moreover, brain imaging has shown that even though the process feels effortless, activity of different domains of the brain is actually enhanced in a state of flow.
The art making process seems to be strongly connected to the state of flow, with a number of participants experiencing it during creative processes. There are certain elements of the art therapy process that can increase the chances of experiencing flow, such as manipulating the lighting of the room, the timing of the intervention, music, and creating tasks in such a way that they put the individual’s skill into use while also challenging them to a certain degree. Individuals may also experience flow after the process of creating art, such as while talking about or assigning meaning to their creations.
Means of Art Therapy
Art Therapy can encompass the use of a broad variety of media, ranging from traditional art to more modern and novel means. The aim of art therapy is for individuals to engage in some form of self-expression, and this may be carried out through whichever medium they find most comfortable with, or even a combination of media.
Traditional media may include:
- Drawing: drawing or sketching with the help of tools such as pencils, markers, coloured pencils and pens, crayons, and so on can be a very effective form of art therapy. Drawing can be undertaken anywhere and there is a great degree of freedom involved.
- Painting: the use of various types of painting materials (water-based, oil, etc.) and inks on either paper or canvas can constitute painting. Individuals may also use their hands or fingers to paint, which can provide an added sensory engagement and stimulate touch.
- Clay: clay can also be helpful for sensory engagement, and also provides a three-dimensional element.
- Collage: collages can be either three dimensional or two dimensional, and can encourage individuals to look for various materials to express themselves through. Collages may be preferred by individuals who are not comfortable with other media to create art.
While these are commonly used traditional means for Art Therapy, a wide range of media may be utilized for the purpose of self-expression. These can be:
- Photography and Film: individuals may be encouraged to take pictures of things around them such as their friends and family, parts of their daily life, or other elements that they feel may contribute as a form of expression. Individuals may also be encouraged to take videos, as a form of video-therapy (or cinematherapy) in order to find opportunities to express themselves.
- Digital Art: with technology rapidly developing, individuals may not need to confine themselves to traditional media for art. Digital art software and devices can offer many options to express oneself, and these tools can provide individuals with a ‘virtual studio’ that they can take with them wherever they go. Individuals may also create stories in the form of comics or animation-based videos with the help of digital software.
- Crafts: crafts can encompass a large variety of activities. Since crafts are very hands-on, they can be a very effective form of expression. Papermaking, origami, sewing, crochet, and so on, can be considered as forms of crafts and may be used in therapeutic settings.
- Expressive Arts: self-expression takes many forms, and may be carried out especially freely through expressive modes such as drama therapy, dance or movement therapy, and music therapy. Individuals may also create puppets in order to tell stories, or create a face mask. The use of expressive art forms can make it easier for individuals to indirectly channel their inner narratives and communicate them effectively.
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