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What Good are the Arts? Expressive Arts Therapies & the Brain

I have an MA in English, so I’m used to having to defend the arts. People say that a degree in the arts won’t earn you money or success: Getting a Master’s in English is useless, because what career will it lead to outside of academia? I’ve been asked time and time again: “What good are the arts?” But culture – and art – are put on a pedestal at the same time as they're considered career garbage. Historically, it’s been thought that the arts connect us to what it means to be human and actually make us better people. It’s not surprising then, that arts-based therapies are part of the counseling field as a healing agent.

Expressive arts therapies have a long history in the United States, especially when you consider their connection to the humanities (loosely defined here as art/literature/the performing arts). Expressive arts therapies, which include art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy, bibliotherapy, and play therapy, are defined by their use of the arts in a counseling setting. Creating art is considered a source of healing that can connect a person to their emotions and inner self. Recent research on the brain has supported the assertion that arts-based therapies enable powerful changes in the brain to occur, often through the creation of art as a process vs. art as a product.

Art and science are often considered opposites, so it’s interesting that science is providing evidence for expressive arts therapies healing the mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A good starting point is defining what exactly the expressive arts are – and what is their history? Furthermore, how does the evidence pan out – in other words, how do these arts-based therapies create changes in the brain? Keep reading to find out.

Dance Therapy

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) emerged in the 1940s after founder Marian Chase noticed its benefit on students and later, on psychiatric patients. Dance therapy is defined as a combination of dance and therapy techniques; movement is the treatment of choice. The way that dance therapy works is through a mind-body connection. Dance therapy clients develop a mind-body connection by learning to identify their emotions, link them to specific regions of the body, and express them through movement. This expression can be a coping strategy that empowers people to reach their goals as they recognize that they can try something new and succeed (Anderson et al. 2014).

The way that dance therapy works in the brain is through stabilizin