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How the Arts Can Influence Wellness

The Art of Wellness

Forging new pathways to brain health by engaging in the creative art community

written by Cathy Carroll

A musician lies inside a magnetic resonance imaging device with a keyboard and noise-cancelling headphones and plays a piece of music, then improvises, then composes. The imaging shows unexpected parts of the artist’s brain engaging.

A cancer patient takes a doctor’s prescription to draw something—anything—every day.

An ensemble performs authentic Japanese taiko drums and traditional dance as a way of combating violence against Asian Americans.

Families at a birthing center see art depicting people who look like them, helping put them at ease and recover faster.

Research and new technology continues to show the link between the arts and wellness, and Oregon health and civic organizations are embracing ways for it to make a difference in people’s lives.

At Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, neuroscientist Lawrence Sherman began a series of popular talks exploring how playing and listening to music can help brain development throughout your life. Local songwriter and pianist Naomi LaViolette as well as opera legend Renée Fleming have joined him in presentations, culminating in a book he’s just completed with professional musician Dennis Plies, who teaches music at Portland’s Warner Pacific University. They’d been working on Every Brain Needs Music: the Neuroscience of Learning, Teaching, Listening and Loving Music for four years, and pandemic lockdown gave Sherman time to finish it. When it’s released, part of it will detail how advances in brain imaging, including the MRI scans of musicians’ brains at work, reveal the benefits of cultivating creativity.

Lawrence Sherman

Lawrence Sherman

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OHSU

“It really kind of gets down to not only the nature of music composition, but just human creativity in general and how the brain engages in those types of things,” said Sherman, a musician and president of the Oregon and Southwest Washington Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.

Studies have shown that when you perform music with a group, it has real, measurable physiological effects on the brain and chemicals that are regulated by the brain, including things such as pumping out feel-good endorphins.

“People who are experiencing chronic pain, when they sing in a group, say the pain feels like it’s going away, so you’re actually loading your system up to sort of not care as much about your pain basically,” said Sherman.

Even more interesting about those studies is that the size of the group matters. “So, singing alone in the shower is okay, singing with a few friends is okay, too, but singing in a really big choir group has all these effects on both endorphins and also another chemical in the brain, dopamine,” said Sherman. “Which is part of your reward.”

The instant gratification effect also gives people a sense of acceptance within a group.

“It’s really remarkable that we seem to be wired to really like to be in these situations where we’re in this large group of people singing together or playing music together,” he said.

“We probably evolved as a species to depend on other people. When we were in the caves and hunter-gatherers, we worked together to survive, so being accepted into a group is a very positive thing for the human brain. We really want that acceptance, we want to know that people are on our side, that there they’ve got our backs. So doing things together, things that reinforce that togetherness, I think, is part of a circuit that’s very primitive in our brains and very important to our existence.”

Another exciting finding, Sherman said, is that learning to play an instrument gives a serious boost to brain neuroplasticity. “One of the things that we know now is that our brain is very plastic. Even at an older age, we turn over new cells in our brain all the time and we make new ones,” he said.

In learning things like a new musical instrument, your brain gets stronger by making new myelin, which forms a protective sheath around the threadlike part of a cell that transmits electrical signals between cells. Damage to myelin is associated with multiple sclerosis, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

“So there’s all sorts of therapeutic consequences there,” said Sherman. “Music can cause these remarkable changes—you’re actually rewiring your brain.”

One of the things that we know now is that our brain is very plastic. Even at an older age, we turn over new cells in our brain all the time and we make new ones.

Kenneth Weizer loved being a filmmaker, but after he was diagnosed with cancer at age 32, he thought there was more to life. “I wanted to help other people through the cancer dance because it was hard for me, and I was a young healthy guy,” he said. He pivoted to medical school, and for the past two decades, he’s worked as a naturopathic doctor at Providence Portland Medical Center. “I approach it in a human way, not just trying to kill cancer. That’s what oncology does, getting rid of the lump and the bump. I get everything else, all the good stuff—the person, how they feel and think and sleep and poop and stress, and I try to minimize the side effects of the oncology treatment. … You don’t want to just beat cancer, you want to remember who you are.”

He prescribes creativity laced with laughter for everyone, whether you have an illness or not, but especially for his patients, amid “all the stuff that’s easy to not talk about in the drama and trauma of cancer.”

When he asks patients what they can do for their creative wellness, the most common three-word response is “I don’t know.” He responds, “Awesome. You’re a blank canvas.” He asks what is the easiest thing they could do, such as picking up a pen and paper and drawing or writing, or spending $3 on a piece of clay and sculpting it into something. Not a shred of artistic knowledge is needed, only a kind and nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself.

“Who cares what anyone else thinks about it,” Weizer said. “Kids don’t care, they just do it. It’s part of the factory-installed creative process. We need to remember that. Picasso said that it took him his whole life to remember how to paint as a child.”

Give yourself even just a minute or two every day to connect to your innate creativity, he said, in part because it’s an integral part of health and wellness. He has a three-word mantra for that commitment to yourself, similar to a marriage vow: “No matter what.”

“Don’t forget, it’s one thing—it’s not mind and body— you’re not two things, you’re just one thing,” Weizer said. “They’re the same thing—they’re you. And when you feel good in your heart and mind, that affects your biochemistry and your biology.”

Creativity can encompass many arts such as culinary— baking cookies for yourself and others—or literary, by reading aloud to others. (During lockdown he spent several weeks reading Moby Dick in one-hour installments to an elderly friend.) Sharing these endeavors enhances wellbeing. “Little kindnesses, the littlest creative thing you do, you’ll know it’s right because it feels right,” Weizer said.

Another drug he prescribes is laughter. He’d been giving g his popular “Laughter is the Best Medicine” clinic around town and when the pandemic struck, the University of Portland asked him to help struggling students by offering his talk. It attracted more than 100 students, plus faculty and administrators. It combines laughter yoga, which involves getting groups to laugh for no reason, and other techniques. For instance, try sticking out your tongue while describing your favorite food—it’s nearly impossible to not laugh.

Some of the nation’s largest nonprofits including Americans for the Arts and the Mayo Clinic cite that laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulating your heart, lungs and muscles, and prods the brain into releasing more endorphins. By increasing and then decreasing your stress s response, heart rate and blood pressure, it creates a relaxed feeling. Laughter can also soothe tension, stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, easing some of the physical symptoms of stress. Long-term effects include improving your immune system, with laughter jolting the release e of neuropeptides to help combat stress and potentially more serious illnesses.

Watching the Portland-based Unit Souzou ensemble perform on authentic barrel-sized, Japanese taiko drums combined with precision choreography in traditional dance is mesmerizing. Not only do the artists create groundbreaking, professional theatrical works, they focus on building community. For Asian Americans, that extends the concept of health and wellness to that of safety, said co-director Michelle Fujii.

Their show, “Otherness: Togetherness,” performed virtually last year, was aimed at combating fear surrounding xenophobic and racist incidents unfolding across the nation and in the community. Another show, “Constant State of Otherness,” is in the works.

“It was based upon the recognition of how much, especially from 2016, there was just so much rhetoric happening in public spaces really of divisiveness,” said Fujii. People with identities from other places became the targets of animosity and being made into the enemy. “Our drum is an opportunity to be able to have a voice. Through the art form itself, it’s an opportunity for people to hear our voice and to hopefully mirror or see a mirror of an experience that is not often seen or heard.”

To counteract the unhealthy, toxic othering that is perpetuating, the show will represent voices from multiple identities, gathered through interviews with people from multiple backgrounds, Fujii said. The ensemble members bring their own lenses of multiple marginalized identities and personal stories of vulnerability.

Another project, “Rhythm: Walking to the Heartbeat of our Community,” began as a collaboration with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon on transit issues and pedestrian safety, but was postponed last year during the pandemic. The work relates to efforts of the city and other civic groups to address traffic safety of new Portlanders who have arrived recently from countries with different traffic norms, and longtime residents of color displaced to neighborhoods with wide, fast streets.

It is a highly sensitive issue, especially in east Portland, Fujii said. “There’s some deep fears now around safety on our streets and walking. … Multiple pedestrian fatalities have happened there, specifically from our Asian community of elders that are trying to cross the street when there are not enough safe crosswalks for them.”

The word “wellness” can evoke a sense of privilege around making life more enjoyable, Fujii said, but Unit Souzou’s projects, which include school-based education programs, aren’t aimed at niceties. “We’re just trying to make sure that we are keeping our community alive and feeling like they can walk along the streets, without having to worry if they’re going to get harassed because of how they look.”

Legacy Emanuel Medical Center is looking to art to recalibrate the experience of the world their patients are bringing children into. The center’s labor and delivery unit’s walls have long had art and graphics depicting images of infants of predominantly white, nuclear families. In curating an art collection for the new Family Birth Center at Randall Children’s Hospital opening this summer, a committee of leadership, nursing, physician and nurse midwifery staff focused on not only the joy of the birth of a healthy child, but also the fear and potential feelings of grief and loss that can be associated with a high-risk pregnancy. The patient experience of single parents, surrogates, same-sex couples and ethnic diversity was also of utmost importance, said committee chair Katie Dunn, the hospital’s art therapy certified supervisor and clinical art therapy program coordinator.

“There has been consideration for soothing imagery, a sense of support and a sense of control—which all have positive impacts on patient satisfaction scores in labor and delivery/family birth units,” said Dunn. In line with Legacy Health’s commitment to anti-racism, the committee hired community consultants, commissioning work from artists in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities, and acquired art depicting a diversity of people.

At Randall Children’s Hospital, art such as “Together We Follow” by Dan Gluibizzi has been shown to help marginalized patients and their families feel better because they see themselves reflected in artwork.

At Randall Children’s Hospital, art such as “Together We Follow” by Dan Gluibizzi has been shown to help marginalized patients and their families feel better because they see themselves reflected in artwork.

artwork by Dan Gluibizzi

“Marginalized populations of people have felt an immediate sense of relief and pride in seeing people that look like them and/or their families represented in artwork,” said Dunn. “Literature supports what I see on a daily basis, that patients who have access to the arts, even if only a landscape painting in the corridor that induces a sense of relaxation, results in higher patient-satisfaction scores, provides a greater sense of wellbeing, faster recovery times, and quite possibly contributes to better health outcomes than patients who do not.”