Creativity and health -- works in progress

Art has played a therapeutic role in human life for centuries. Before the advent of science and even the invention of written language, our distant ancestors dealt with their fears and anxieties by depicting them visually. They used pictures and symbols to tell stories and explain mysteries about their world. They created music, dance, and visual art to bond and collectively express the way they felt.

The ancient Greeks may be the most famous example of a society that refined the therapeutic nature of art through drama. Greek tragedies were intended to wring emotions of pity and fear. This experience was observed to have a "cleansing" effect, and the notion of art as therapy has long since stayed with us. Today, science tells us that the emotional benefits associated with participation in the arts can also translate to better health. Our instincts to turn to art for emotional wellness are giving rise to a new way of looking at art as a component of a healthy way of life.

According to Shaun McNiff, a pioneer in the field of expressive therapy, "Both art and healing transform afflictions into affirmations of life." McNiff, a painter, has published dozens of articles and books about art as a mode of healing. He now teaches in the Expressive Therapy Program at Lesley University in Cambridge, one of the leading institutions in the field.

Expressive therapy takes the therapeutic nature of art to a new, quite literal level. Developed in the 70s, this discipline brings the arts into a variety of settings with the aim of promoting improved health. Many leading hospitals, including Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, employ expressive therapists who help patients establish a creative space, whether musical, visual, through dance or writing.

Expressive therapists assess which mode of art may work best for a specific individual. For example, studies show that people recovering from a stroke have a speedier recovery if singing is part of their rehabilitation process -- an expressive therapist trained in music therapy can help with this. To take a famous example, poet William Carlos Williams turned to poetry to help ward off depression after a debilitating stroke. The end result was the work "Pictures from Brueghel and Other Collected Poems," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

Creativity, health and aging

Our exposure to the arts makes us healthier mentally and physically. Learning a new art form or continuing to practice a lifelong creative pursuit can keep our neural connections strong and may help prevent cognitive decline. Physical health benefits include improved cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system. One study examined a large group of seniors engaged in community art programs in three major U.S. cities. After a year, those who participated in the art programs had fewer hospital visits, improved mental health, a lower mortality rate and a greater sense of community involvement than their non-creative peers in the study.

According to the National Center for Creative Aging, "the process of aging is a profound experience marked by increasing physical and emotional change and a heightened search for meaning and purpose." The instinct to find meaning is one of the hallmarks of a creative mind. With decades of experience behind us, we are in a position to use our insights to help put life in perspective.

Last year, a group of residents at Youville House Assisted Living honed their creative skills while making a "Memory Quilt" for future residents of the Courtyard at Youville Place, a planned memory support community in Lexington. Cambridge-based quilt-maker Clara Wainwright supplied fabric and expertise, coaching the group through the quilt-making process. This was not purely a technical exercise, but also an emotional one: the group discussed their own experiences with dementia, loved ones they had known with Alzheimer's disease, and the importance of memories. Over a period of weeks, the group's understanding of design, fabric and color became inseparable from their expanded awareness of emotional connection around the theme of Alzheimer's disease. The final quilt is a rich display of color and the personal experiences of the 12 residents who worked and grew together. The simple experience of bonding around a structured creative pursuit was a reward in itself, and a wonderful example of how art can help us grow, bond and heal.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England,