Billy Wilder used to say that movies should make viewers forget about their unpaid bills or their problems at work. As he observed, culture is a space for healing. The last two years have demonstrated this. Attending a concert, reading a book, getting lost in a museum or being moved by a play served not only as forms of entertainment and escape, but also as means of learning and emotional reconstruction. These processes occur not only with the cultural activities that we consume, but also with those that we do ourselves, such as writing, sculpting or painting.
There is scientific evidence that any cultural activity, whether passive or active, benefits mental health on many levels. Cognitively, it focuses our attention amid an overload of data and stimuli. Reflecting on fears, doubts, and insecurities in a journal can help us organize our thoughts and calm us down. Watching a movie can strengthen our episodic and semantic memory by the effort of storing sequences that will be consolidated into memories. Thinking about existential and anthropological questions, as depicted by great directors, painters or writers, stimulates us intellectually. On a social level, going to the opera or the theater encourages us to share our opinions and ideas, to develop our critical spirit and to become more tolerant.
On a physical level, the culture revitalizes us by putting our minds at peace, reducing anxiety and stress levels. Listening to music, for example, has a beneficial effect on brain chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. It can also help reduce cortisol levels. On an emotional level, these activities put us in touch with our fears and worries, allowing us to better accept them. Identifying with similar characters in a movie or book increases our introspection and helps us get to know each other. At the same time, confronting antagonistic characters challenges us by questioning our points of view. Culture also satisfies our desire for pleasure and entertainment. As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is something more important than logic: imagination.”
Global health institutions have finally recognized the thesis that artistic practices have positive effects on well-being. The European Region Office of the World Health Organization published a report supported by more than 3,000 scientific studies in November 2019. The WHO urged European governments to integrate the arts into their health and well-being policies. -be. In September 2020, the Spanish senate asked the government to declare culture as an essential asset.
In healthcare settings, some projects use art and culture to humanize the hospital experience. The Cultura en Vena foundation has orchestrated some of these initiatives. In one of them, an exhibition in a hospital presents reproductions of works from the Prado Museum, as well as texts intended to connect with the emotional experiences of the spectators.
Reading is another way to participate in culture. Every day, patients plagued by anxiety, depression and impotence 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”. Language structures the psyche and reading can be a form of therapy. The British bibliotherapy initiative Reading Well Books on Prescription has been widely accepted by clinicians and patients.
As anxiety, depression, insomnia, and stress have become more common, experts have begun to search for solutions that complement typical treatments. Health workers are in an important position to recommend cultural activities that help rebuild the world and heal the soul. As Almudena Grandes said, “culture is an ingredient of happiness”. Philosophy, literature and the arts help us better understand the complexity of human experience.
Patricia Fernandez Martin is a clinical psychologist at the Ramón y Cajal Hospital in Madrid.