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Embracing creativity: a gateway to individual and societal wellbeing

Embracing creativity: a gateway to individual and societal wellbeing

By Elisa Muzii
on November 16, 2023

Neuroaesthetics (or neuroart) is an emerging field within cognitive neuroscience that investigates the benefits of incorporating some kind of creative activity in your regular schedule and advocates living a life that is aesthetically pleasing to your brain. I recently learnt about neuroaesthetics from a podcast where neuroscientist Tara Swart described some fascinating research that shows how doing something creative once per week – she mentioned a broad range of creative activities, including going to the theatre, reading a novel and even spending time in nature – has a huge positive impact on physical and mental health, and longevity.

During my previous studies in Global Health and Social Medicine, I was repeatedly reminded that health is more than just a medical matter. I learnt to view wellbeing as a resultant of numerous determinants, many of which are not typically taken into consideration in common medical practice. So, with a holistic approach to health in mind, I got curious about the health benefits of creativity.

In her book The Source, Dr Swart argues that we are all innately creative, which goes against the commonly accepted and narrow definition of creativity as a natural talent for art, and the frequent assumption that either you have a creative disposition, or you don’t. I have encountered the latter assumption countless times when hearing people say ‘I am not creative’, and I am guilty of it myself. I can’t draw for the life of me, nor do I enjoy decorating my room, I have thought about myself for years, so it must mean I am just not a creative person. But then I was challenged to look at the facts that put into question such belief: throughout childhood I gained years of experience in dance, music, story writing, crocheting, and many other creative activities. Did all of that just disappear altogether as I transitioned into adulthood? It appears that while we all engage in various creative activities as children – as a matter of fact, arts are invariably present in school curricula – as we grow older, many of us leave our creative talents behind and our interest in them seems to fade away.

I imagine there could be a myriad of reasons as to why creativity takes a backseat as we age. For some, as priorities shift, life just becomes too serious: the childlike joy that once fuelled creative endeavours is overshadowed by new commitments and obligations that leave no room for carefree and spontaneous expression. For others, those driven by perfectionism, a paralysing anxiety may be experienced at the mere thought of creating anything less than a masterpiece, leading them to perceive creativity as an intimidating activity rather than a relaxing one. More often than not, it comes down to a shortage of time and resources, combined with the weight of responsibilities of adult life.

But creativity doesn’t necessarily demand a time-consuming or pricey hobby that exhausts our energy and resources. It could be something as simple as appreciating the beauty and fragrance of flowers or diving into a fantasy book. Previous research has shown that reading fiction regularly creates new pathways in young adults’ brains and medical writer Rita Carter also explained that reading just 30 pages daily makes such pathways thicker and denser. Carter argues that reading fiction is more important than any other form of reading, and that it is not only beneficial on an individual level, but it also creates a more empathetic society.

Another example of how engaging in a creative activity yields benefits on both individual and societal levels is demonstrated by Dance for Health, a research-based intervention to strengthen mental health among young people which has been implemented across Sweden as a cost-effective complement to school health care, founded by physiotherapist Anna Duberg. I heard about Dr Duberg’s work at a TedxKI event where she presented her research on the stress-reducing benefits of dance. Her innovative method emphasises movement enjoyment, simplicity and social inclusion, and it leads to improved health and less visits to the school nurse at a very low cost.

Dr Duberg’s initiative is an example of how effective and inexpensive interventions focused on creativity can be, and efforts worldwide are increasingly being devoted to similar programmes, with a considerable policy interest in the relationship between the arts and public health. For example, after releasing a noteworthy report on the subject, the World Health Organisation  (WHO) has been testing arts interventions to advance specific health goals, such as universal health coverage, maternal health and suicide prevention. Similarly, a forthcoming Lancet Global Series on the health benefits of the arts has been recently announced by the WHO in collaboration with the Jameel Arts & Health Lab. The series will encourage an approach to prevention and treatment in which resources are mobilised towards more holistic, equitable and effective systems of care.

The universality of creativity plays a pivotal role in fostering wellbeing across diverse contexts and can be especially impactful for individuals in deeply challenging and precarious situations. In such circumstances, people can find solace and a sense of empowerment through creative outlets. While it certainly cannot substitute for structural solutions to their predicament, participating in artistic expression offers a channel for emotional release and serves as a source of hope and purpose. Indeed, studies suggest that art-based programs can significantly alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for individuals who have experienced traumatic events or precarious situations, such as refugees and children in conflict-affected areas. Apart from relieving psychological symptoms and negative emotions, such interventions also nurture an increased sense of community and revive hope for the future.

Overall, there is an immense potentiality that lies in art as a powerful tool for improving health and quality of life. Extensive research has shown that dedicating some of our time to creativity rewards us with benefits to be enjoyed by individuals as well as by society, and art interventions are increasingly being implemented globally for improved public health.

If you have always thought that you are not innately creative, you might find some resistance at the idea of embracing your creative side, but as Vincent van Gogh, who would have undoubtedly been a proponent of neuroaesthetics, said: 

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced”.

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Gaurav says:

I loved the different perspectives and methods you covered on the topic. Great work, Elisa!