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September 6, 2022

Mental health and the arts

Last week the Poverty Alliance hosted a gathering of civil society organisations to consider the fast unfolding cost of living crisis. Every report from frontline organisations painted the same truly grim picture. The stress of being unable to afford the basics of everyday life will become increasingly intolerable for untold thousands, and is certain to exacerbate the current mental health crisis – itself a legacy from the pandemic. While it doesn’t put money in people’s pockets, new research providing scientific evidence for the link between arts engagement and our subjective well being is nonetheless worth noting.

Dr Jessica K Bone & Dr Daisy Fancourt, UCL


Arts, Culture & the Brain – UCL

Executive summary – Full report 

In this report, we provide an overview of the current evidence on the associations between arts and cultural engagement and the brain, and we also add to this evidence, conducting our own new analyses of cohort data. 

We performed a comprehensive review of the brain-based mechanisms of action that could link arts engagement to health. We grouped these mechanisms within four domains: subjective wellbeing, psychological capabilities, neurophysiology, and motivational processes. To date, the strongest evidence is for the associations between arts engagement and subjective wellbeing. Engaging in receptive and participatory arts activities can lead to subsequent improvements in wellbeing, even after accounting for previous levels of wellbeing and a wide range of confounders. There is also extensive evidence that arts engagement is associated with changes in psychological capabilities and motivational processes in children, adolescents, adults, and older adults, ranging from the development of behaviour to cognitive decline. In contrast, evidence for the association between arts engagement and neurophysiology is the weakest of the domains we reviewed. Literature in this domain has largely focused on the effects of music and dance, with a reliance on inadequate experimental studies, and has not yet explored other forms of arts engagement in detail. The potential effects of arts engagement on neurophysiology in the general population thus remain unclear. 

We have also outlined the findings of new analyses, undertaken to address the limitations of research to date. Across nine studies, we used data from cohort studies with large representative samples and long-term followups. We tested a range of brain-based mechanisms of action that could link arts engagement to mental and physical health outcomes. We demonstrated that the associations between various forms of arts engagement and subjective wellbeing are present across diverse subgroups of the population, such as people of different ages, with specific medical conditions, and living in different areas. However, after using more sophisticated methods to account for confounding, we found that participation in community arts groups may only be associated with the positive, and not negative, elements of subjective wellbeing. We also demonstrated that not all artistic and creative activities are directly associated with subjective wellbeing, indicating that a variety of mechanisms link different forms of arts engagement to health. In terms of psychological capabilities, we addressed the issue that factors related to later life cognition are also likely to influence arts engagement, which may have led to an overestimation of the impacts of arts engagement on cognition in previous studies. We found no evidence for associations between arts engagement and cognition in older adults, demonstrating the importance of fully accounting for demographic and socioeconomic confounders when exploring arts engagement and the brain. Finally, addressing motivational processes, we demonstrated that engagement in extracurricular participatory and receptive arts activities during adolescence is associated with reductions in a range of behaviours that are often perceived as negative, including externalising behaviours, reportedly antisocial or criminalised behaviours, and substance use. 

Overall, there is a large body of evidence on the associations between arts engagement and the brain, but more high-quality research is still needed. We have identified various priorities for future research, including the use of larger and more diverse samples, more systematic reviews, research that uses a complex systems approach, and further consideration of various contextual factors. Despite the limitations of the literature, a familiarity with this evidence base is important for arts organisations and policymakers, and we hope that it can be used to increase and diversify arts engagement in the general population