Billy Wilder said, “If cinema can make a person forget for two seconds that they parked the wrong car, didn’t pay the gas bill, or had an argument with their boss, then they have achieved their goal.” Culture is a healing space. We’ve seen that in the last two years. Switching off at a concert, reading a book intently, getting lost in a museum, or getting emotional at a play served not only for separation, avoidance, and escape, but also for learning and emotional reconstruction. We refer not only to cultural activities in which we are passive spectators, but also to activities in which we actively engage, such as writing, sculpting or painting.
There is scientific evidence that any cultural activity, whether passive or active, benefits mental health at various levels. If we look at the cognitive part, it focuses our attention on a scattering of data and daily stimuli that saturate us. Reflecting on fears, doubts and insecurities, for example in a diary or in a text, serves to bring order and reassurance. Watching a movie can strengthen our episodic and semantic memory by making an effort to memorize the sequences that are consolidated as memories. The intensive confrontation with existential and anthropological questions of the great directors, painters or writers provides us with hints and insights that stimulate us intellectually. On a social level, going to the opera or the theater encourages us to share opinions and ideas, develop critical thinking and become more tolerant.
On a physical level, culture oxygenates and revitalizes us by calming our mind and reducing anxiety and stress. Listening to music, for example, has a positive effect on brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin and can help lower cortisol levels. Emotionally, these activities put us in touch with our fears and anxieties, allowing us to better embrace them. For example, identification with similar characters in a movie or a book increases our introspection and helps us get to know each other; but at the same time, the experiences of antagonistic characters are challenging, challenging our points of view. We also devote time to culture out of our own instinct for pleasure and entertainment. “In addition to logic, we need imagination to survive this reality,” said Alfred Hitchcock.
The thesis that artistic practices have positive effects on health and well-being was eventually supported by institutional bodies. This was published by the European Region Office of the World Health Organization in November 2019 in a report based on more than 3,000 scientific studies. WHO has urged European governments to include the arts in their health and wellness policies. In September 2020, the Spanish Senate issued an institutional declaration to the government calling for the declaration of culture as an essential good.
In healthcare, some initiatives try to humanize the hospital experience of patients, family members, and staff through cultural and artistic proposals, such as: B. the one proposed by the Cultura en Vena Foundation. In one of them the exhibition Goya in a hospital It shows reproductions of works from the Prado Museum that contain mediation texts that tie in with the emotional experiences of the spectators. Living Museum is another movement dedicated to creating art spaces in mental health facilities.
Another way to bring culture closer is to encourage reading activity. Every day patients plagued by anxiety, depression or helplessness approach the shelves in search of relief. As Guillermo Lahera, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Alcalá, says: “Literature is a powerful source of meaning”. And in addition, recommendations for literature or bibliotherapy are very useful, because language structures the psyche. A few years ago, the UK initiative Reading Well Books on Prescription found wide acceptance among doctors and patients. Similar projects have been carried out in Spain, such as B. the Bibliotherapy-Healthy Reading promoted by the Health Authority of the Xunta de Galicia. It offers the possibility to select a book from a list divided by subject.
The increased incidence of anxious-depressive symptoms, insomnia, and stress has prompted experts to seek complementary solutions to conventional care that mitigate these effects. We health workers have an opportune moment to recommend cultural activities that help rebuild the world and heal the soul. As Almudena Grandes used to say, “Culture is part of happiness”. She is the perfect ally in this transition, because philosophy, literature and art help to better understand the complexity of human reality and to reconcile with life.
Patricia Fernández Martín is a Clinical Psychologist at the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid.
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