How culture keeps us feeling happy and human

Happy men and women smiling

At some point in our lives, most of us have found ourselves powerfully moved by the arts. Whether it was the soaring crescendo of a musical performance, the breathless overload of encountering some beguiling and brilliant painting, or the rousing effect of powerful writing brought to life by a talented thespian – the effect of being moved this way can almost feel like magic. We have found that art has somehow extracted us from ourselves, dissolving into insignificance the dull minutia of the world beyond the stage, beyond the frame, or beyond the page, leaving us with nothing in that moment but that artwork and the emotions it has roused within us.

This effect can still touch us even when we are suffering from chronic discomfort or illness. David Leventhal, co-founder of Dance for PD, has witnessed this surprising and inspiring phenomenon many times over.

Working now for over two decades, Dance for PD has helped many sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease to restore belief and confidence in physical movement through the mental choreography and physical techniques of dancing. While initially an element of risk was assumed, together the session leaders and their dancers have learned that the rewards were powerful and positive – that dancing seems to speak a different language to the brain, allowing session participants to access greater fluidity and grace when compared to everyday movement.

These experiences appear to be consistent with the findings of medical professions. Speaking on our panel, Why Culture is Key to Health and Wellbeing, Professor Raymond MacDonald shared research that suggests that patients that listened to their favourite music before an operation felt less anxiety before entering the theatre. Not only that, but the same patients also felt less pain following the procedure.

These are exciting avenues of research that bridge the divide between the medical sciences and the arts. One thing is sure, the arts can do more still in support of healthcare at large. In the words of our panellist Sarah Munro, “lockdown changed the perception and importance of being involved in the arts.” Most of us turned to literature, film, painting, music, and gardening, as a creative outlet, for comfort and mental invigoration, and even as company during the Covid-19 pandemic, demonstrating in that time of crisis that culture was never just the icing, it is the cake itself.

The perpetuation of the strange social conditions of national lockdowns affected no one more than the children deprived of learning and opportunities to socialise in schools for eighteen months. Our panel agreed that these experiences were a form of emotional trauma, one that needs to be processed collectively. Again, the arts can help with this – improving creative participation in schools is a great way to help young people express their thoughts and feelings and re-engage with inventive thinking, while simultaneously rediscovering a greater understanding of community.

The arts cannot claim to cure health issues. Yet they can offer social cohesion, positivity, and even temporary liberation from trauma. As one Dance for PD participant expressed succinctly: “when I’m in dance class, I don’t have Parkinson’s.”

Cultural engagement should therefore be seen as a part of an overall prescription, an important part that enables us all to feel happy and human. David Leventhal employs the metaphor of a powerful but underused natural resource: “arts and culture is to health and well-being what solar power is to a liveable planet. We need to tap that power source to create a more sustainable society.”

Our full discussion is now available online through the Edinburgh International Culture Summit Hub. To hear more on the health benefits of arts and cultural engagement from our panel of experts and register your interest in future discussions from our digital programme, visit the Culture Summit Hub now.