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Artistic expression has evolved in all civilisations around the world and is an integral part of human functioning.
Art is a way to practise imagination and gives us an evolutionary edge in making creative choices that promote survival.
To maximise survival options, the brain is inherently wired to imagine possibilities for the future that enhance safety and access to resources while minimising risk and danger.
If the brain is a predictive processing machine, then what is it that people do in art? They imagine and create. Art is not then something that is a luxury or a diversionary activity but is fundamental to survival; if you are not able to imagine, you will not be able to thrive.
The power of the arts lie in their multidimensionality, nonlinearity and timelessness. Metaphors and meaning can be held at the same time.
Art-making gives us the opportunity for creative expression and unlocking of imagination, which in turn leads to a sense of agency and possibility that might previously not have been available.
Art-making activates dopamine reward pathways in the brain, which enhance mood and relaxation and promote reflection and learning.
There is also a therapeutic role for the arts in helping individuals cope with challenges.
Art therapy as a profession was developed to help people who need more than traditional talk therapies to address their psychosocial needs. It combines art media and a therapeutic presence – namely a therapist – to respond to challenging experiences and explore creative and adaptive alternative futures
If we consider the brain to be a predictive machine wired to move us from threat to safety and our human instinct towards creative and imaginative pursuits that enhance survival, then the purpose of art therapy is to enable individuals affected by threats to wellbeing – such as violence, illness and trauma – to respond adaptively and appropriately.
Through the supportive facilitation of the art therapists, individuals can draw strength from their creative capacity and gain a sense of belonging in times of stress, adversity and vulnerability.
This process of art-making, including media choice and creative expression, can result in gaining mastery and confidence, which can be transferred beyond the art-making and therapy session into thriving in life itself.
About the speaker
Girija Kaimal is Assistant Dean for Special Research Initiatives and Associate Professor in Creative Art Therapies at the Drexel University College of Nursing and Health Professions (Philadelphia, USA). In her Health, Arts, Learning and Evaluation (HALE) research lab, she examines physiological and psychological outcomes of creative visual self-expression. She has served on the Board of Directors and is now President-Elect of the American Art Therapy Association, an advisor and editorial board member of several arts and health journals, and a practising visual artist. Her art explores the intersection of identity and representation of emotion.