Advances in human brain imaging help us evaluate brain functions from many perspectives.
We can define structural brain differences between individuals with various disorders,
such as adult schizophrenia (1) and childhood, autistic-spectrum disorders (2). From
these studies, we can posit hypotheses regarding structure, and how structure relates
to symptoms. However, often we find it difficult to assign causality to such findings.
For example, we can ask whether structural anomalies cause the symptoms or whether
symptoms drive the abnormal brain structures. Nevertheless, we can confidently say
that the brain’s structure changes as a consequence of illness and activity, eg, imaging
data show that with proper rehabilitation, the injured brain rewires and recovers
its function (3). We label this process “brain plasticity.” Various fields use the
concept of brain plasticity. One such very exciting, emerging field involves the study
of art and the brain, or art therapy (4). Originally, art therapy used pure art concepts,
void of scientific inquiry. Now, slowly, it is embracing scientific thinking by using
abundant neuroscientific data and the objective tools of scientific investigation.
For years, we recognized that art-making allowed one to reframe experiences, reorganize
thoughts, and gain personal insights that often enhanced one’s quality of life. Art
therapy has gained popularity because it combines free artistic expression with the
potential for significant therapeutic intervention. Although based on subjective data
and testimonies, various artistic disciplines have helped patients with diverse disorders
that include developmental or acquired, medical, and/or psychiatric conditions (5,6).
To utilize nonstandard, medical therapies within the well-established medical model,
we must demonstrate the utility and efficacy of novel tools and approaches. The scientific
method is one way we can demonstrate that art and art therapy modify the brain’s physiology
and structure and lead to a more flexible, adaptable individual. Moreover, if we want
to validate non-standard approaches, such as art therapy, we need more studies to
assess their effects on brain function. As we might imagine, it is very difficult
to define art and its optimal therapeutic uses. Naturally, as a new field, art therapy
is trying to define its territory and claim its domain within brain science. To gain
acceptance and credibility from the medical establishment, art therapy is, seemingly,
hoping to assign unique artistic processes to specific brain structures, but the specific
brain effects of the artistic process are difficult to study. Nevertheless, through
neuroscience, art therapy is attempting to locate particular brain areas or activity
patterns that may be devoted exclusively to art-making (7,8). Yet, this specificity
presents a problem – the brain does not distinguish between the processes used to
create a scientific invention and a work of art – the brain undergoes identical activity
sequences and manipulations (9,10).
At the outset, an artist may wish to express an idea and a scientist may hope to develop
a new treatment or novel molecule. Next, both artist and scientist choose their tools.
Then, both experiment, and, eventually, create a final product. At the system level,
the brain is unaware of the anticipated outcome, ie, a new pharmaceutical agent or
a sculpture. If we accept that scientific and artistic processes use congruent networks,
we can assume that artists and scientists use very similar brain processes to deploy
their conceptualizations (11). As such, in terms of therapy, there is no difference
between using scientifically validated novel art therapy and other current standard
therapeutic interventions. Treating human pathology using art gives us a tremendous
alternative unique and novel option for engaging brain networks that enhance the way
the brain processes information, incorporates external and internal data, and develops
new efficient brain connections. Ultimately, our goal is for humans to become better
adapted to their defined environments. It is quite evident that scientists, clinicians,
and artists must come together to share and discuss their experiences. Their interaction
can lead to novel communication and cooperation. Clearly, at the brain level, any
intervention’s goal is the dynamic enhancement of emotion, cognition, and executive
flexibility so that one fully participates in life and avails oneself of the experiential
and hereditary gifts in his or her environment (12). Ultimately, we hope to integrate
all disciplines without prejudice and develop novel therapies that optimize the treatment
of mental illness.