Art as Therapy

In November 2019, I was invited as one of the speakers at the SciVizNYC Symposium at my grad school alma mater – Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The program gathered people from a wide array of professions, ranging from surgeons to medical illustrators to fine artists, and gave a great overview of how art and science can mutually benefit each other. In this post, I would like to share a summary of the talk I gave there.

Modern-day scientific research leads to extraordinary discoveries of how our brains work, but it is still quite far from helping us to understand our emotions.  This is especially true in times of grief, when we struggle in defining our personal experience, which is often deeply painful and confusing.  While technical understanding of biological processes can lead to long-term medical breakthroughs, art can help individuals find hope in the present moment. In my work, I explore the balance between scientific accuracy and personal interpretation, where excess information can hinder both disciplines, while simplification may lead to a sense of clarity.

For centuries, art has been used as a form of non-verbal communication, where the artist can express their feelings. In the 1940s, the artistic process was shown to provide health benefits and the term “art therapy” was coined. Today, art therapy can be used by professional psychologists to facilitate patients’ self-expression, thereby aiding their recovery from trauma. The slide below shows a few definitions of art therapy.

In other words, art therapy allows you to express your feelings without having to talk. The key is that it requires the help of a trained therapist. However, I am more interested in how we can view art as therapy, which we can use ourselves as a way to help us heal.

We have all seen a version of the picture below, showing the left brain hemisphere as logical and the right hemisphere as creative. While this may not be particularly accurate from a scientific standpoint, it provides a good framework for thinking about art as a therapeutic activity that we can engage in ourselves. Here are a few quotes of how people have described its benefits.

In addition to being a repetitive process that can put us into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called the state of “flow” and be used as a meditative activity, art can help us process many emotions – both positive and negative.

One that I would like to focus your attention on is sorrow or grief and how seemingly unrelated scientifically-inspired art can hep us picture our emotions.

If you have gone through any traumatic experience in your life, you may be familiar with the 5 stages of grief framework. It starts with denial of the trauma and progresses to us getting angry at the situation. We then begin to bargain with ourselves and others on how the situation may be resolved. When we finally realize that it cannot be fixed, we go into deep depression. Sooner or later we reach the acceptance stage, ready to deal with the new reality. You can read about it in more detail here.

While that may look like a neat and orderly process, in reality these stages often come in random order and we bounce back and forth between them. I found this image by Dr. Nafisa Sekandari to be a good representation of what it may actually feel like:

So with this in mind, I will be presenting my works in a “logical” rather than “chronological” order in which they were made – just like we are taught to present our scientific data after a research project is done.

The first piece is titled “The Void” and it represents DENIAL. While the red 3-dimensional structures may jump off the page first, I would like to draw your attention to the negative space in the middle, shaped as a neuron. I made this piece when, due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to temporarily leave the field of neuroscience that I love so much and was going through an internal battle of still identifying myself as a neuroscientist. It made me feel like there was a gaping hole where my mind used to be.

I then followed up on this by replacing the black space in the middle with a portrait of a grieving woman.

The ANGER stage is represented by my 2017 work titled “Abyss”. It was inspired by news that after hurricane Irma, waters were contaminated with a deadly strain of amoeba that can devour brain tissue, leading to a quick death after infection. Here, I juxtaposed the micro and macro scales, showing the amoeba ingesting neurons, surrounded by the swirling hurricane. Sometimes, our emotional state can feel like an unstoppable vortex that is consuming our mind and body.

Next comes BARGAINING. Here, I started exploring the theme of Hope. The picture on the left shows a 3-dimensional iris of an eye that I made out of beads. The eye is placed inside of a large hourglass filled with black sand that represents all of the daily negative emotions that we have to deal with. But if you look at just the right angle, inside the eye there is a sparkling white jewel that represents hope. Without hope, we would never be able to move forward.

DEPRESSION is represented by “Tortured,” which is one of my earliest and favorite works. It is directly based on my postdoctoral project of looking for a drug combination that would promote neuronal regeneration after acute injury to the central nervous system. The left side shows the healthy intact portion of the nerve, followed by the large red glial scar that presents both a physical and a biochemical barrier. Only a few axons manage to pass through it and come out “tortured” or misshapen on the the other side. This phenomenon provides a metaphorical representation of a traumatic life event. We may be able to slowly move forward, but we are no longer the same as before.

The image in the bottom right corner shows a reference micrograph of a real injured nerve with the glial scar in red. (Image source)

Finally, we come to ACCEPTANCE represented by “Transformation”. This neuron shows a gradient of protein expression in the distant portions of dendrites as they extend and adapt to the new surrounding environment. If we cannot change the circumstances, sometimes we need to change ourselves.

Art is my emotional outlet and my oasis.  I use art to express my feelings and work through life issues.  Come join me on this journey of letting go of control and letting the creative process take over.  You will get access to all of the behind the scenes footage and see the major breakthroughs that translate into new artwork.

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