Doubtful That Art Saves Lives? Evidence Indicates It May Heal

Art Saves Lives,” is a bumper sticker I occasionally see around town, and every time I do  I think, “Maybe, but in an emergency I’d prefer my rescuer know CPR than how to wield a paintbrush.” It’s a conundrum created “where science, humanity, and art converge.”

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

But what of art’s ability to heal? Most nurses know the benefits of art therapy: self-discovery, personal fulfillment, empowerment, relaxation, and symptom relief. However, can merely looking at art produce similar effects?

This question came to mind while rereading Vermeer in Bosnia¹, an written essay by Lawrence Weschler. Weschler interviewed Antonio Casse, then the presiding judge of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, during the trial of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity.

Weschler asked Judge Casse how he maintained his sanity while listening day after day to horrific accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Casse’s answer: “Ah, you see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town [in the Hague], so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.”

Can looking at art — even a painting as beautiful as Girl With a Pearl Earring — reduce the effects of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue? If so, can nurses and patients benefit from this simplest form of art therapy?

A small study ² conducted by Dr. Marina de Tommaso, a neurologist, found that patients who gazed at and contemplated paintings they considered beautiful felt less pain when subjected to noxious stimuli. The New York Times has reported that museum visits help Alzheimer’s patients experience symptom improvement ³. The mechanism triggering these effects on the brain is not well understood.

Though the jury is out (pun intended) as to whether looking at art has therapeutic power, I think it’s worth a try for patients — and their nurses. Here are a few easy to implement suggestions.

  • Incorporate artwork into waiting rooms and hallways, but be mindful of the patient population. Art with jagged edges or mirrored surfaces (some types of sculpture, for instance) may evoke posttraumatic symptoms in patients who have disfiguring scars, surgical or otherwise.
  • Place something beautiful in the patient’s view from the hospital bed or the infusion clinic lounge chair.
  • Place books featuring artwork in waiting rooms instead of year-old magazines.
  • Hang a beautiful painting in the staff lounge instead of that big, messy corkboard cluttered with safety committee meeting minutes and medication recall notices.
 OK, that last one will never happen, so here are some suggestions to try at home:
  • Find a location with a beautiful view on your route home. Pull over, take a deep breath, and look. We live in a beautiful world.
  • Shop for art at a museum gift shop. Not every budget allows for buying original art. Gift shops offer an assortment of quality reproductions. Have less money to spend than that? Collecting postcards of works by famous painters is an inexpensive alternative. Buy frames from dollar stores or thrift shops, paint them white, and hang them in groups on a bright color- painted wall.
  • Create an art space in your home. I pinned my postcards to an old vanity. Once I added candles, it doubled as a place for meditation and reflection.

Do you think it’s the art or a meditative response to looking that provides relaxation and improves symptoms?

¹ Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler,The New Yorker, Nov. 20, 1995
² ITALY: Beautiful Art Eases Pain, Monica Dobie05 October 2008 Issue No:47
³ The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s Therapy, Randy Kennedy, October 30, 2005, The New York Times

New Post for TheONC: Can Looking at Art Make You Well?

This week I ask Can Looking at Art Make You Well? in my post of the same title

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

for TheONC.

I asked the question after re-reading a 1995 essay written by Lawrence Weschler for The New Yorker titled Vermeer in BosniaIn his essay, Weschler interviews Antonio Casse, then the president of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, during the trial of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity.

Weschler asks Judge Casse how he maintained his sanity while listening day after day to grizzly accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Casse’s answer:

“Ah, you see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town [in the Hague], so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.

As do most nurses, I spend my workdays witnessing life and death among patients. At home, the evening news is full of world conflict and disaster. Can merely looking at art calm us and increase our resiliency from burnout, as Judge Casse asserted?

The Oncology Nurse Community (TheONC.org) is a new online social forum for oncology nurses and cancer care teams where they can leverage their collective knowledge, nurture professional growth and emotionally support each other in a secure environment, as registration is required.

Moderated by oncology nurses and key opinion leaders, TheONC features discussions and commentary covering key issues ranging from symptom management and palliative care to managing ethnic and cultural diversity.

Other resources in the community include:

▪                A Library of resources including patient education materials and presentations by community members

▪                Clinic Close-Up, where members can view video-based interviews with experts from large group practices, private practices, and academia covering a variety of topics

▪                News items relevant to clinical practice

▪                An interactive Quiz feature where nurses can test their diagnostic knowledge on a regular basis

▪                A Calendar of national and regional events and meetings specific for oncology nurses and cancer support team members

If you are a member of an oncology nurse or member of a cancer support team, Like TheONC on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @The_ONC.

Never Stop Developing Your Curiosity: New Post This Week for TheONC

This week, I’ve written a new post for TheONC titled, Never Stop Developing Your Curiosity.  I discuss the role curiosity plays, not only in creativity, but also in patient care, such as helping a patient deal with chemo induced alopecia.

TheONC is an online community for cancer care teams with blogs and discussions covering a variety of oncology topics. Recent posts discuss palliative pain control, stem cell transplant, cancer risk after solid organ transplant, music therapy, and more. Individuals involved in the care of cancer patients can register for a site login, and join the conversation. Follow on Twitter @The_ONC.