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Why art is good for your mental health during Covid-19

Noted French neurologist Pierre Lemarquis explains the mental health benefits of art, never more relevant than during the Covid pandemic

16 February 2021
By Connexion journalist

Art is vital to our mental health, neurologist Pierre Lemarquis argues in his book L’Art qui Guérit.

He is the author of books on the links between ageing and music, and on people with Alzheimer’s and stroke patients who have forgotten how to speak but who can nevertheless recall melodies.

Mentally playing music we like in our heads produces the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin.

Children who learn music manage their emotions better, speak earlier and are more sociable. Those who listen to jazz develop better short-term memories.

“When I started working in this area, it was groundbreaking and we were ahead of the pack,” he said of his time working with Boris Cyrulnik, a leading French neuropsychiatrist who is well known in France for developing and popularising the concept of resilience.

“It’s banal now, mainstream, so I started researching to see if there are similar benefits from looking at art.”

He began by asking people with Alzheimer’s to look at various artworks, or photos of artworks, and class them according to which ones they liked best.

“Jeff Koons is always a favourite,” he said. “It led me to start looking at aesthetic empathy: how you ‘feel’ a painting, if you like. I did a very interesting course in Nice on psychiatric phenomena – trying to put yourself in the place of the patients instead of looking at them from the outside. It was fascinating.”

He said he was not alone in his conclusion. Unesco has funded several research projects on the impact of art on human health and wellbeing and concludes that it has a positive effect.

In the CHU-Sud hospital in Lyon, art is used as a therapy for patients. Some actually paint during renal dialysis, and people admitted to hospital can choose pictures for their hospital rooms.

'Art held their hands during their treatment'

“It changed everything. Art held their hands during their treatment. Patients who had never been in a museum or an art gallery suddenly wanted to go. They often chose photos. Images by street artist Big Ben are very popular, especially the eyes of David Bowie.”

He said art cheers up patients and the measurable effects are more pronounced than the levels which would be shown if it were merely a placebo effect.

“Art stimulates the intellect, as well as the emotional parts of the brain. It gives people joie de vivre.

“It has been proven to help relieve pain, sleeping problems and anxiety. It improves memory and wellbeing.

“Hospital rooms are so empty and impersonal. Having art in them helps, especially when the patient chooses their piece of art, because when someone is interested in a piece of art, it is because it reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of something good in their past.”

'Mental health professionals are braced for a wave of psychiatric problems once Covid is over'

Unsurprisingly, he is disappointed that the government has not considered art essential during the pandemic.

“It is a dangerous viewpoint because, in fact, it is art which makes us want to live. “Mental health professionals are braced for a wave of psychiatric problems once Covid is over.”

He said virtual art and culture cannot replace live performances of theatre and music, and cannot replace the shared experience of being part of a group. “All the non-verbal signals are missing,” he said.

“The brain reacts to music in the same way as it does to conversation. “When we look at a picture of a person, it’s like looking at someone. “But interaction is vital. Television doesn’t have interaction.”

When people look at paintings, they complete them in their mind’s eye, he said.

“We extend them beyond the canvas, we add our own elements to the picture in your own mind. Our brains add elements to the artwork. “But when you watch a film or video, it’s already very complete, so it’s not the same thing. We simply receive the image, but using our imagination and creativity is what heals us, makes us want to live.

“These skills, imagination and creativity, are fundamental to wellbeing. It’s how we calm children and comfort them.” He pointed out that in music from all over the world there is a melodic tension followed by resolution.

“Dissonance followed by consonance. So as we listen, we anticipate the resolution, we anticipate feeling better. That’s how it works. “We all retain our inner children. Artists perhaps retain more, they are in better touch with their inner child.

“They make links where we don’t see them. They recycle experiences.”

L’Art qui Guérit is aimed at anyone who is interested in art and psychology, and draws all sorts of parallels with art in our daily life. “Research shows that the creative act of cutting stone by hand has the same effect on the brain as playing the piano. Art promotes resilience. Art is a uterus that nourishes us, regenerates us and nurses us through trauma.”

He cited Charlotte Salomon as an example. Her story is tragic. A German Jew from Berlin whose mother and grandmother committed suicide, she took refuge in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera in 1938, where she created a huge collection of art, much of it using joyful colours, as a way to mentally cope.

She was later denounced to the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed at the age of 26. She was five months pregnant.

Her art, which she had given to her doctor for safekeeping, was saved and is now exhibited in the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Pierre Lemarquis’ interest in the subject stems from his childhood.

“My mother was ill in hospital so I was brought up by my grandmother, who had a cafe. “It was opposite an art school and the students used to take me around with them.

“When I started studying medicine, it was logical to look at the role of art in medicine because it was something which helped me so much as a child.”

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