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Recent Art Therapy Research: Measuring Mood, Pain and Brain

Stay current in your understanding of art therapy research trends.

©2014 Visual Journal Page courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD
Source: ©2014 Visual Journal Page courtesy of Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

Here are two recent art therapy studies of interest: 1) One focuses on the role of art therapy in possible improvement of mood and reduction of pain perception in patients hospitalized for medical conditions; 2) the second uses a common neurological instrument to compare cortical activity after art making with rote motor movements.

Art therapy improves mood, and reduces pain and anxiety when offered at bedside during acute hospital treatment (Shella, 2017). Many art therapists who work in hospitals encounter patients with stress reactions as well as fear, confusion and mood changes; anxiety and depression are also common experiences in medically ill, hospitalized individuals. Other challenges include pain and its management because poorly managed pain can exacerbate stress reactions and negatively impact mood. Pain management is now a significant focus in health care due to rise in addiction to opioid medications used to treatment acute and chronic pain conditions.

Shella set out to examine if there were demonstrated improvements in pain, mood and anxiety levels for patients at the Cleveland Clinic. A chart review was utilized to evaluate the impact of bedside art therapy sessions with 195 patients at Cleveland Clinic, a large urban teaching hospital. The participant population included multiple medical diagnoses rather than one particular illness or condition. At this facility, patients were routinely asked to rate their perceptions of mood, anxiety and pain using a typical 5-point faces scale before and after art therapy sessions. In brief, the analysis of pre- and post-results indicated significant improvements in pain, mood and anxiety levels for all patients regardless of age, gender or diagnosis (p < 0.001).

The researcher acknowledges several limitations in this study, the most significant being the lack of a control group for comparison. Without a random clinical trial, it is very difficult to say that providing art therapy was the actual causal factor in mood change or pain perception over time. In brief, these changes may have occurred due to the relationship with the art therapist or if some other influence modulated mood or pain perception. The researcher also underscores the lack of validation of the tool to rate anxiety and the likelihood that providing differing approaches to art therapy by the therapists (e.g. no one specific art therapy protocol was administered) may have confounded the results.

Cortical Activity Changes after Art Making and Rote Motor Movement as Measured by EEG: A Preliminary Study (King et al, 2017). The interface between neuroscience and the theory and practice of art therapy has been a focus of practitioners and researchers in the field during the 21st century (Malchiodi, 2012). The leader author of this study, Juliet King, believes that using current brain technology as a form of basic research can contribute to understanding of just how the mechanisms of art therapy support self-regulation, attuned relationships and positive change (2016).

This study uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) to explore differences in cortical activity immediately following art making and rote motor tasks (i.e. coin tossing and pencil rotation). In case you have forgotten the purpose of various neurological measures, an EEG is a test that detects electrical activity in the brain using small, flat metal discs (electrodes) attached to your scalp. Brain cells communicate via electrical impulses; this activity shows up as wavy lines on an EEG recording. In this study, the researchers proposed that there is a difference in cortical responses with respect to these two activities and that these differences could be identified and measured with an EEG.

Both art making and rote motor tasks showed a consistent pattern of increased power as measured by an EEG; however, the increase in power measured after art making was greater than the increase in power seen after the rote motor tasks. In brief, this particular comparison may demonstrate the possibility that an EEG could be helpful in measuring cortical activation when studying certain forms of activities and procedures used in art therapy. King and her team note that using Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI--a relatively new mobile imaging that uses EEG to capture data while participants move and interact with their environment) could be one variation used in future experimental designs; this technology hypothetically could provide a more accessible method to obtain quantitative measurements.

As always, it is exciting to share these two studies that are helping practitioners understand how art therapy “works.” See the reference list below for more information on these research efforts and take advantage of open access!


King, J. (ed.). (2016). Art therapy, trauma and neuroscience: Theoretical and practical perspectives. New York: Routledge.

King, J., Knapp, K., Shaikh, A., Fang Li, F., Sabau, D., Pascuzzi, R., & Osburn, L. (2017). Cortical activity changes after art making and rote motor movement as measured by EEG: A preliminary study. Biomedical Journal of Science & Technical Research, 1 (4). Open Access at DOI:10.26717/BJSTR.2017.01.000366.

Malchiodi, C. A. (2012). Art therapy and the brain. In C. Malchiodi (Ed.), Handbook of Art Therapy (pp. 17-26). New York: Guilford Publications.

Shella, T. (2017). Art therapy improves mood, and reduces pain and anxiety when offered at bedside during acute hospital treatment. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 57, 59-64.