Science of Art Therapy
How to Let Your Heart Heal Your Mind
Although art therapy historically draws on its roots from the psychoanalytic schools of psychology, current brain science provides significant understanding of how the arts, and specifically art therapy, work to heal the results of trauma. To this end, it is helpful to review the basics of the neuroscientific findings, and how they are relevant to trauma informed art therapy.
A general overview of brain structure and function is actually best understood as a bottom up process. The brain is structurally organized from the bottom to top, and reflects the evolution of our brains from response to the primal needs of food and safety to more evolved functions of emotion regulation and executive thinking. The structural model of the brain is closely associated with the evolution of ‘higher’ modes of thinking. Very generally, brain stem functions are the most basic; physiology of a functioning being, such as reflexes and cardiovascular systems. The limbic system, composed of the hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus, is our emotional brain. This area of the brain is responsible for our ability to respond to the environmental cues of safety and danger. The higher functioning areas of the brain are indicated in more advanced forms of learning.
Adding to the layers of understanding, are the roles of explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory, or the memories you can talk about, is inhibited by trauma. While implicit memories, those that hold emotional content, are generated by trauma. It has been shown through brain scan techniques, that Broca’s area, a part of the brain that is implicated in generating speech, is damaged by trauma (van Dalen, 2001, in Malchiodi, 2008, p. 10). This means that trauma survivors literally can’t speak about their traumatic experiences. It is in this way that art therapy can initially help a traumatized individual create an external representation of their traumatic memories.
Further to all of this, is the growing understanding about the presence and regenerative qualities of neural pathways in our brains, and their role in remaining stuck in the implicit aspect of our memories, and our ability to use art as an intervention to create new neural pathways that support healing. Brain scans show the unique role of art to stimulate the production of new neural pathways, and thus to mitigate the effect of the implicit memories of trauma by externalizing them.
What this tells us is that art therapy is uniquely positioned to support the healing of trauma by: attending to the primal needs of safety and relaxation of fear responses; assisting to build new neural pathways that will generate the use of healthier coping responses in victims of traumatic events; and finally, by helping individuals to process their experiences, using their own creative art as a starting point for discussion.
Hass- Cohen, N. & Carr, R. (eds.) (2008). Art therapy and clinical neuroscience. London, UK. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Malchiodi, C. (ed.). (2008). Creative interventions with traumatized children. New York. Guilford Press.