Creativity and the brain: How the arts can shape well-being

Credit: Pexels. Anastasia Shuraeva

These are the show notes and some added comments to expand on the amazing topic of creativity. Feel free to read what you are interested in, and I hope you will find some useful information here.

Creativity is about the possibilities that can be. Creative activities (such as group singing, museum visits, etc) may prevent depression, dementia, loneliness, and more common issues. Movement, singing and dancing may help processing the trauma we are experiencing, professionals are saying.

In 2019, associate Professor of Art Therapy at Lesley University Kelvin Ramirez started to travel into Juarez, Mexico, with a group of 13 other mental health professionals –  some were music therapists, others were expressive arts therapists, dance or drama therapists. They visited several shelters, one of which held almost 800 asylum seekers families and children in Juarez, who were stranded there because of some of the Trump policies at the time. The mental health professionals had conversations with people and their leaders and found out that they were in a trauma response. Some had dissociated from their experiences, others were hyper vigilant regarding the condition of the shelter. So one of the first things that they did was to help people to regulate their emotions, using music and the arts.  They had people move, sing, dance, create images of their countries of origin, of safe spaces. The immigrants were held in places with huge empty space outside.

There were about 200 children and they designed cities and parks. One 9 y.o. boy was completely dis-regulated: he couldn’t hold his emotions, or keep his boundaries, he kept slamming the drums of the other kids and pushing the other kids around. The group of children had been moving, singing and dancing and embodying a sound. But this boy he let out a scream, he took a deep breath, looked up into the sky, and he screamed really loud, holding his fists really tight. The whole group imitated that scream. Then they did it again – and you could see the pressure from the kid’s shoulder just release in that cathartic scream of what he had experienced. 

As these mental health professionals had conversations with the parents, they learned that children were holding the same anxious energy which was found in that space. They didn’t have words or an outlet to express their emotions. Therefore, through that intervention – and the others they took during the pandemic – they educated leaders, educational institutions etc and showed them that art- based activities help to regulate trauma, and even help the helpers who are living a vicarious trauma.

We dance for laughter, we dance for tears, we dance for madness, we dance for fears, we dance for hopes, we dance for screams, we are the dancers, we create the dreams. Albert Einstein.

MUSIC. There is much to learn from Assal Abibi, Associate Research Professor of Psychology, Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California. Assal has been helping in Los Angeles and has worked with young children who are part of the Youth Orchestra of L.A. , in a program called YOLA, which is connected to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and provides high quality music training to kids who wouldn’t get it otherwise. Their parents hold multiple jobs and don’t have time or resources to give them musical education. The children attended a music community program four times a week; it’s inspired by El Sistema, the famous Venezuelan musical education program. Basically each child is given a musical instrument so he can express himself.

The mantra of El Sistema is that music education is a human right, and the co founder of the system, Josè Abreu, insisted that this was written into the Venezuelan constitution. Going back to the L.A. program, it has shown systematically that the children who took the musical programs stood out in hearing skills, auditory perception and language development, when compared to children who were given sport activities. But the interesting thing is that the researchers noticed changes in their brain frontal network, which is responsible for executive function, planning and decision making. These networks were more engaged, they had a better ability to delay a reward for a better one in the fur rather than wanting something immediately, and that is a good predictor of cognitive and social development, it helps you to learn how to plan your life. 

The parents of these children noticed that they were less aggressive/hyperactive, better at connecting with their families and community, more compassionate and empathetic. High quality art programs should be back to the public school system as a way to improve cognitive development and social well being.  So teaching the arts helps with control, expression of our emotions.

Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul. Plato.Plato

Kelvin Ramirez was the high school vice principle in Bronx, New York. There were students who destroyed their career in the first 3 months of school due to unresolved trauma. They arrived at school with a pre conceived notion of what it was like and the desire to fight with the very people who were trying to support them. It was hard for Kelvin to ask them to leave or move to another school and he started to rack his brain looking for a solution. He felt personally responsible for failing them. So he started to create a curriculum for those who were in 9th grade and about to move to high school. He had 6 classes and 30 students that he would meet weekly. These were all at risk of leaving school. 

He would ask them questions like, How do you think your family perceives you? Then after a 5 minute conversation they would engage in art making, perhaps a still life, and they would identify what they got right and wrong (composition, perspective, aesthetics). Other times he would ask them to draw a self portrait, and chat with other students to see how they see them differently. 

After weeks of art making they had conversations on how this translates to their behaviours. How do you perceive other people, how do they perceived you and where is that misalignment causing a problem. So self esteem came out. Art making helped to reduce inattention and reduce hyperactivity; it helped them to focus. Average students improved their self esteem. The high risk students saw improvements in how they assessed their school problems and a reduction of their internalised problems. So when they had problems, they didn’t conclude that it was for ‘them’, it wasn’t their fault.

All 3 groups of students reported how cathartic it was ago do something creatively and see other students in the classroom, with whom they could relate the experience. 

For example divorced parents, stress in communities, gangs and drugs, addictions, and Kelvin had students asking him to start a group about substance addiction, for example, or bereavement, because someone had lost a family member.

The students attended all these groups and asked their peers to join them. This phenomenon began to change the climate in the school, so they left a very punitive model where a kid would get a consequence and be upset at the system because they had to go to detention or reparation.

And the students understood that they had some unresolved trauma or something that was happening that they couldn’t identify and that if we could get to that root cause and start dressing that, then the behaviour would change. So the school felt responsible for helping the students who were suffering. 

The dance is a poem of which each movement is a word. Mata Hari.

When you bring art to the school you create a safe space for the students to share their voices and hear other voices. Safety, says Susa Magsamen, is not only the absence of threat; it’s the ability to have an environment where students can share. We are wired for arts and aesthetic experiences and in some ways they are the most extraordinary super powers that we have.

Education is often pedagogy, and it takes the art out, but arts can be used to better ourselves and the world.

Susa says she has seen many programs in school which use music, dance, theatre, where different types of social and emotional learning happen, and self regulation happens. 

We know that the arts are effective, yet 100% of the politics that are implemented countrywide are taking arts out of the schools and moving them to out of school time or summer.

It has been proposed to bring art and music back to school as powerful tools for skill learning, collaboration, creativity,  self reflection, compassion.

There are also libraries, museums, church groups and youth organisations that are doing the same and creating connections, increasing neuroplasticity, executive function, social skills.

Teaching young people how to play an instrument that is familiar with their family helps them to be more engaged with them while learning music. Mental health disorders cost billions of dollars, but when we help young people when they are still at school, they can improve their chances of healing, getting more access to mental health preventative services and understanding that everyone can benefit from them.

Quotes from Alan Harvey

Music has extraordinary power to stimulate our emotions and evoke memories.”

“Levels of the hormone oxytocin (in the bloodstream) are raised when people are signing together. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, trust and relationship building. Our sensitivity to pain and stress hormone cortisol decrease when we are involved in group music making activity.”

“Research shows that at-least some musical education has a positive impact on social and cognitive development of children. And these effects are long lasting – better hearing, better motor skills, improved memory, better verbal and literacy skills.”

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