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Viewing Art Rewards the Brain

In preparing for the Art: the Road to Recovery art show, (a collaborative effort between Western State Hospital, NAMI, Mental Health America of Augusta, the Staunton Augusta Art Center and Shenandoah Art Therapy) in addition to learning about some other community opportunities to view art, I got thinking about the potential hidden benefits for not only the artists involved, but also for those who come view the show. So, after doing a little digging, I was pleased to see that many other people had this same question and went on to research and write about it. Below is a list of the themes I came across of how viewing art is beneficial, followed by some opportunities coming up in our community to put these findings to the test! Please enjoy and feel free to comment on your experiences interacting with artwork.

Top 3 benefits of viewing artwork:

1. Viewing art activates the reward center part of the brain in the same region that is activated by drug and gambling addictions (Pedersen, 2015). Several other studies have found similar results showing that when we view art, we are processing emotion and activating the pleasure center in our brain (Bergado, 2014). Viewing art allowed chemically addicted women in recovery to reconnect with their feelings and engage deeper in their recovery (Feen-Calligan, et al., 2008).

2. Viewing art decreases stress. A 2006 study found that when people with high stress levels went in to view artwork for only 35 minutes, their cortisol, or stress hormone decreased.

3. Viewing art increases empathy, tolerance and critical thinking skills. A survey of over 10,000 students showed this to be true after the students toured an art museum. Interestingly enough, they found this to be especially true for students in rural schools or in high-poverty areas (Greene, 2014). It has also been observed through survey that mental health-focused art shows can increase empathy and lead to potential social change (Potash, 2010).

In reflecting on my own experiences viewing artwork, I can certainly see the potential of all the benefits listed above. Naturally, as an art therapist, I often find myself observing the formal elements of artwork and thinking about the symbolism. As someone who also appreciates art, I find myself attempting to put myself in the artist's shoes to think about the process of making the piece and what I might feel, think and be experiencing if I were creating the same imagery. Finally, I reflect on the many times when I saw something in an art piece that just spoke to something that I feel, think or experience and in that moment, I can take the liberty of projecting that onto the piece and take comfort in knowing that I am not alone.

Bergado, G. (2014). Science Shows Art Can Do Incredible Things for Your Mind and Body. Retrieved on April 13, 2016,



Feen-Calligan, H., Washington, O. G. M, Moxley, D. P. (2008). Use of artwork as a visual processing modality in group

treatment of chemically dependent minority women. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 35(4), pp. 287–295.

Greene, J. (2014). The Educational Value of Field Trips. Retrieved on April 13th, 2016, from


Pedersen, T. (2015). Brain Feels Rewarded While Looking at Art. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 13, 2016, from

Potash, J. S. (2010) Guided relational viewing: Art therapy for empathy and social change to increase understanding of

people living with mental illness (Doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis). Retrieved on April 13th, 2016,


Need an opportunity to test out these benefits yourself?

Join in the fun at the following events, starting TONIGHT:


Craig Snodgrass' No Saves art show tonight at t