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Can art make us feel better? How art that reflects nature can be good for our wellbeing.

Posted on 08 September 2016

Participation in culture is strongly associated with good health and high life satisfaction. Alongside this positive impact on general wellbeing, there is growing evidence of the benefit that art and culture can have on specific medical conditions.

So, can art make us feel better?

This is what award winning artist Mark Ware has been investigating over the past few years with support from the Arts Council. 

Mark has been working with neuroscientists and psychologists to explore and measure the effect that artistic visual and auditory stimuli - based on the natural world - has on people.

 

MRI investigations into natural versus artificial sounds conducted at University of Sussex. Image courtesy of Mark Ware. 

Findings show that natural sounds and sights can provoke positive psychological states with the potential to improve people’s wellbeing and aid stress recovery.

The idea for the work came to Mark when he was giving a sound workshop to children with autism and cerebral palsy. One girl appeared to respond particularly positively to the natural sound of the sea and much less well to the artificial sound of a music box. “Her carers were amazed,” noted Mark. And this begged the question: “Is there something inherent in natural sounds that we all respond to?”

Fusing art and science

Inspired by this experience, Mark embarked upon the Wavelength Project, supported with a grant of £43,927 from our National Lottery funded Grants for the Arts scheme. Mark collected field samples of natural and artificial sounds and then, in collaboration with neuroscientists at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science in Brighton, he played these sounds back to volunteers and recorded their brain activity using an MRI scanner. Findings suggested that exposure to natural sounds may be beneficial to mental health, by reducing the likelihood of self-referential and evaluative thoughts, while improving broad attentional focus.

Mark Ware recording natural sounds. Photo © Sara Ware.

As an artist, you can move faster, you can take giant leaps.

So what next?

Intrigued by the results and their potential in fostering wellbeing, Mark shifted his focus to the visual. At the end of 2015 Mark received a further Grants for the arts award for Reflecting Nature, a project that saw him working with psychologist Dr Nichola Street, a lecturer and researcher at Staffordshire University’s School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise.

The pair created a series of new digital artworks which use imagery of the natural environment and symmetrical patterns. The artworks are currently touring the country and being exhibited at a range of different venues including Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and Gloucester and Exeter Cathedrals.

 

Cathedra 900 3D banner exhibition at Exeter Cathedral.  Photo © Mark Ware. 

"Here at Exeter Cathedral we are once again delighted to be hosting an exhibition that Mark Ware has created.  This year in collaboration with Dr Nichola Street of Staffordshire University, the Reflecting Nature exhibition will enhance the beauty and wonder of Exeter Cathedral.   These beautiful prints echo the intricacy and amazing detail of our natural environment which is expressed in many ways within our church building.  They help us to appreciate nature’s complexity, to make us think and enter into the images more deeply.”
The Reverend Canon Ian Morter, Canon Treasurer and Pastor of Exeter Cathedral#

Attendees to the Reflecting Nature exhibition are being invited to take part in the research by observing the artworks while psychologists use eye tracking equipment to monitor them performing specially designed response tasks. All this will be analysed to help create art works that Mark and Dr Street hope will evoke positive psychological states.

artwork that helps improve mood and a sense of wellbeing

Speaking about the Reflecting Nature project Mark Ware says, “Most of my art since having a severe stroke in 1996 has been touched by my disability and as a result I have become increasingly interested in how my subjective experiences have been altered by my brain injury.

The Reflecting Nature collaboration is allowing me to explore subjects that are of profound interest to all artists: why we create art, how we respond to art and how art is intrinsically linked to our interactions with the natural environment.

Dr Nichola Street said “Psychologists have long known that the environment in which we spend time is important in terms of health and wellbeing, and that nature has particularly beneficial properties. The collaboration with Mark Ware has been an eye-opening experience comparing and contrasting the artistic and scientific ways of working and how we see the world.

For me the most exciting part of the project lies in understanding the impact that visual stimuli can have with a view to creating psychologically positive environments where mobility or choice of location is low - such as hospitals and schools.

Stevie Rice, Head of People Engagement at Kent Wildlife Trust- a Wavelength project supporter – said: “Kent Wildlife Trust is thrilled to be part of the Wavelength Project as part of its compelling people engagement programme fusing creativity, sustainability, science, art and conservation. This project will bring to the fore many of our core beliefs about nature and its intrinsic link to our own wellbeing and sense of identity.”

And what of deep-space missions?

The results of the project so far point to some important considerations about how we might create immersive environments that are able to replicate some of the positive effects of exposure to nature.

In a recent article about Mark’s work in the New Scientist, Oliver Angerer of the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne suggests that Mark’s work might prove useful in the design of deep-space missions: “Understanding the possible beneficial effects of natural environments and their mechanisms may allow us to adapt space habitats to better suit human needs.”

Reflecting on the potential for fusing art and science, he says:

If this was purely based in science, it would involve generations of work, investigations, proofs and developments. As an artist, you can move faster, you can take giant leaps.

Where now?

The collaborations and results from the Wavelength Project and Reflecting Nature exhibition will inform the development and creation of a series of new artistic work, including original music compositions, multimedia performances, sound and light installations and creative workshops.

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