The Healing Power of Art

Art exposes us to new ideas and people we may never otherwise meet, allowing us to have unique emotional experiences and to feel connected to one another. It promotes dialogue and creates a platform for us to share experiences and ideas. Research shows that the simple act of engaging with art is connected to positive health outcomes, such as reduced stress and anxiety.

TEDMED has long celebrated this connection between art and health. For example, in 2015, creative art therapist Melissa Walker took our stage to share how she engages patients with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder through making masks, giving service members a non-threatening platform to unravel their stories and unlock their emotions. And, last year, artist and patient advocate Ted Meyer shared his story and showcased his 18-year project Scarred for Life which chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises.

This year at TEDMED, we will hear from two artists who use their artistic talents to communicate stories about themselves and their communities. By sharing personal experiences of loss and healing, and depicting the emotional experiences of entire communities, these two artists are using are promoting well-being through their unique artistic outlets.

For cellist Zoë Keating, music has always been a means of risk-taking and personal expression. With her husband’s encouragement, Zoë gained the confidence to conquer intense stage fright and to pursue a professional career in music after spending several years in the tech world as an information architect. When her husband was diagnosed with stage IV non-smoker’s lung cancer, Zoë’s story pivoted and she took on another role—that of the caregiver. She paused her career to care for her husband and their young son, documenting their family’s experience navigating the complicated US health care system and their insurance battles on her music blog. After her husband died, Zoë coped and communicated through her music.

Zoë describes her music as a lifeline—a way for her to rebuild her world after loss and move forward. Scientific research has reinforced the healing power of music: researchers have found that music is intertwined with our experiences, creating musical and emotional memories which we can unlock to promote healing and recovery. For example, patients with brain injuries may be unable to talk, but are able to use singing as a starting point—propelling them on the path to regaining speech. Zoë remains an advocate for patients like her husband and continues to perform original songs influenced by her experiences and emotions. Each piece of music she performs is a story that brings her closer to her audiences than ever before.

Like Zoë, Artist Jennifer Chenoweth has experienced personal trauma and found healing through her art. Growing up, Jennifer faced physical and emotional challenges, and art provided her with an outlet and a community that she says helped lead her on a path to wholeness. Jennifer describes art as the “door to stories,” and through her XYZ Atlas project, she uses art as a way to explore how experiences create a sense of belonging and why we become emotionally attached to certain places.

Jennifer Chenoweth’s Hedonic map of Austin

By correlating psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to a color wheel and using hundreds of anonymous responses to a survey about where individual emotional experiences have occurred, Jennifer created a “hedonic map” of her hometown Austin, Texas. The National Endowment for the Arts uses similar techniques to provide healing experiences for military veterans. The idea behind this program is that creative platforms help both patients and providers gain a more coherent understanding of the patient’s underlying status, making “invisible wounds” more visible and readily addressed. Jennifer sees emotion as a surrogate for health status. Her maps allow her to visually demonstrate both the disparities and commonalities of individuals in the community, providing lessons of compassion and connectedness.

TEDMED has always championed the role of art in health and its potential to promote well-being, whether by simply using exposure to uplifting art to expedite the healing of patients in the hospital or by creating a new platform to evaluate our communities and promote dialogue. These Speakers are making the invisible visible, and facilitating new ways for us to embrace our connectedness.