Art could help medical science save your life

Maria Isabel Garcia
Aside from medical prescriptions, there are 'social prescriptions' that play a significant role in healing

“I really do not know anything about death. No one does. But we all know a bit about life and that it is best with love. So I think we move on with that from here.”

That is what I told a good friend who has just recently been diagnosed with cancer. That is the only thing I can say to her when I knew of her condition. 

When someone is diagnosed with a disease, especially a very serious one, the patient experiences some sort of “clear confusion.” Clear, because the physical signals of hope and despair are so palpable that there is no question that they are there. Yet it is also confusing, because there is no full guaranteed positive outcome from any of the doctor’s prescribed treatments. Neither are there any from well-meaning friends and family volunteering “cures and treatments,” medical or otherwise, and assurances that range from the worldly to the religious.  

Medical doctors are the ones who could lay out the path for possible treatments for patients with cancer or other serious diseases, like those on hemodialysis. That will address the illnesses, but medical science in recent years has also been finding out that aside from medical prescriptions, there are “social prescriptions” that play a significant role in healing

In a review of studies on the impact of a range of artistic activities experienced by patients, there is robust evidence that the arts are not simply palliatives or means to keep you distracted – they could really transform your experience of your ailment into something you could endure and even come to terms with.  This could spell the difference on the quality of life we are all aiming for, since none of us have full control on the length of any of our lives.

The art and healing experiences included music, visual arts, writing, and those that made use of body movements, like dance and theatrical activities. 

The studies concerned showed that music indeed reduces anxiety and clams the brain which reduces stress hormones that contribute to inflammation. Some of the studies also showed that some immune functions go back to doing their jobs via a signal from brain parts associated with feelings and long-term memories (such as the amygdala and the hypothalamus) which music activates. 

Cancer pain and heart diseases could also be managed with music, as shown in the studies. Cancer patients who were treated with music were able to perceive less pain from their illness. Those with heart problems reported reduced heart rate, respiratory rate, heart oxygen demand, and anxiety. Musical experiences of patients also gave way to positive emotions and improved immune system responses. 

Exposure to visual arts, whether as a witness to it or as a creator, was also found by studies to have a positive effect on patients. The studies think it is because there are emotions that have no equivalent in words. With imagery, what is whirling inside as some sort of cloud could be given shape and meaning where words fail. That could trigger physiological responses in your body that help you heal.

One study even exposed dialysis patients to a host of art experiences, such as visual arts, crafts, crocheting, poetry, and the playing of musical instruments for 6 months. They found that there were improvements in many of the 36 symptoms that they looked at when evaluating the overall state of the dialysis patients’ health. These included weight gain, serum carbon dioxide content, calcium, albumin, and phosphate levels. Equally important is that the patients were less depressed.

In art forms that involved body movement including theater and Tai-chi, findings showed that there were significant improvements in thinking or memory functions, especially among the elderly. Among breast cancer patients, they also reported improved shoulder function – one of the mobility problems that occur with breast cancer – with theater exercises that involved body movement. 

For expressive writing, studies that have been done on patients with HIV, fibromyalgia, and chronic diseases showed that patients reported improvements in pain, fatigue, and their moods. This includes poetry, because there are experiences in life which do not find their home in the ordinary rhythms and syntax of common language. 

The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this piece loves to write, and she writes well. Scientists know that expressive writing operates on so many levels – cognitive, emotional, social, and biological – that it is not difficult to see how this kind of “liberation” can help us heal. Expressive writing is also known as “emotional writing,” and this has been shown to have an effect on your number of visits to the doctor, your immune function, stress hormones, blood pressure, and a number of social, academic, and cognitive variables. And this holds regardless of the culture and age group to which you belong. 

Human health is not just the absence of diseases but the state of our being. That means it includes the condition of those parts of ourselves that cannot be directly damaged by unruly cells, hormones, germs, or the environment, and make up the multidimensional human being that we all are. Modern medicine has enabled us to live longer than we ever have in the history of humankind. But there is another healer in the background, and it is also deeply human, which is art. It may not extend our life, but it could save it. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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