Art Therapy provides a basis for developing and enhancing the level of meaning and purpose one experiences in their life through providing coping mechanisms, grounding techniques, emotional processing, and accessing the subconscious through visual imagery in order to bring it to a conscious, actionable level. The beauty of utilizing art as a platform for increased depth of communication with oneself, their therapist, and others close to them is it encourages the mind to externalize and express itself in a new way that requires personal reflection and mind-body attunement. It is of great importance that one does not have to be an “artist” to find Art Therapy meaningful, rather in the context of Art Therapy the motto is “everything you create is correct and of value,” no matter what it looks like. Sometimes the end product is not meaningful at all, but rather the process behind it, so a non-judgmental and gently accepting mindset is supported by the Art Therapist. This development of unique thought processes in a safe and supportive environment has the potential to help a wide scope of people including those who find their quality of life impacted by their LGBTQIA+ life experiences, chronic illness/pain, attachment disorders, traumatic events, psychosocial concerns, cultural stressors, racism, differential learning abilities, and mental health challenges. The holistic practice of Art Therapy holds the potential to aid in self-growth and in doing so will demonstrate positive influences on one’s perspective, behaviors, stress levels, interpersonal skills, mind-body connection, and level of personal insight.
The therapeutic methodology of Art Therapy reaches a wide spectrum of the population because it is person-centered, and thus can provide a unique treatment that is altered to meet the specific needs and intersectionality of each client. Art Therapy promotes an exploration, processing, and reconciliation of one’s emotions through cultivating the client’s self-awareness and self-esteem in an individual or group therapeutic context. Through integrative methods, art therapy engages the mind, body, and spirit in ways that are distinct from verbal articulation alone. Kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic opportunities invite alternative modes of receptive and expressive communication, as well as neural integration, which can circumvent the limitations of language, such as how automatic defense systems are employed when verbally expressing ourselves, which can in turn impacts one’s ability to access inner wisdom on a subconscious level. Visual and symbolic expression gives voice to experiences through allowing the client to create non-linear narratives and in doing so it empowers individual, communal, and societal transformation.
Different types of artwork have been found to activate differential locations in the brain, thus allowing the therapist to help the client work through areas of stagnation or imbalance through different art forms in order to promote neural integration and further harmony in clients’ lives. More kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual (use of form/line/shapes), and affective (showing emotions through color) methods activate the lower brain including the brainstem, cerebellum, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe. Whereas cognitive (high level of organization and planning) and symbolic activity activate the upper level brain, including the frontal and parietal lobes. Through witnessing the client’s tendencies towards different art media and processes it becomes clear what creative interventions are needed to support the client where they are at and naturally work towards growth through expanding to novel methods, media, and themes.
This approach honors different learning styles and allows integrative movement through areas of developmental stagnation. Furthermore, Art Therapy utilizes dual coding learning, which is achieved by getting different types of working memory buffers (words, ideas, images, and scenes) to activate at once, thereby increasing the chances of retention and storage in long term memory. The more connections there are to a piece of information, the more likely your hippocampus is to determine that it’s worth storing. This is further supported by engaging with information from a variety of perspectives while utilizing different senses, thus facilitating broader and denser synaptic connections, as well as increased myelination. The benefits of visual healing expression are furthered by research demonstrating that we can process pictures in less than a second and remember visual information faster and with more clarity than spoken word. Pictures are more heavily encoded with denser and broader neural connections since different types of working memory buffers are activated such as color, context, shape, texture, and size. The effectiveness of encoding and retrieving images is compounded by the emotion, depth, and interaction conveyed by the visual information.
In a study using EEG recording to measure how drawing leads to heightened alpha frequencies, which indicates lower cortical arousal and relaxed states, the areas of the brain activated during drawing are associated with accessing and developing self-regulation, relaxation, working memory, visual processing, intelligence, emotional trauma, and creativity. The areas that demonstrated significant increases in alpha wave amplitude are the left parietal, right parietal, occipital, temporal, and posterior central regions. In another study, it was found that Individuals who draw while imparting information during assessments impart 2x as much information, and the benefits of this expressive power are compounded by stress reduction, which is facilitated by increases in alpha wave frequency while art making. The creative process of undergoing Art Therapy implements new ways of thinking about and solving problems, which will liberate individuals from mental constraints and allow them to live fuller, healthier lives.
Resources: Dr. Lev Goldentouch, What is art therapy? (American Art Therapy Association, 2013), Effects of Drawing on Alpha Activity: A Quantitative EEG Study with Implications for Art Therapy (Belkofer, Van Hecke, & Konopka, 2014), Jogging the Cogs (Herman, 1992), Art Therapy and the Brain (Lusebrink, 2004), Assessment and therapeutic application of the expressive therapies continuum: Implication for brain structure and function (Lusebrink, 2010)