A Fascinating Glimpse at the Growing Body of Scientific Evidence Behind the Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Benefits of Meditating Upon Art
'Joy (Dancing with Angels)', 2017
You're standing in a gallery. You've been gazing at an artwork for who knows how long. The noise around you has dimmed to an almost imperceptible murmur. The painting has transported you to somewhere else; another land, another culture, another era. You feel peace, wonder, awe.
Been there? Many of us who appreciate art have, and, according to the evidence from recent scientific studies, it's no wonder. Art really can be good for you and has many benefits which we are only now beginning to understand.
Of course for those of us who know Scripture shouldn't be suprised by this. After all,
Jesus himself said:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good then your whole body will be filled with light. However, if you eyes are bad, then your whole body will be filled with darkness.'
So, when we look at something good, it is good for our body. From the biblical point of view, seeing is fundamental to our whole being - for what we look at and allow into our mind affects our whole self, for good or bad.
Sociologists and psychologists have long known this. Yet how can that be? Obviously when we eat something good, it is good for the body, but how can that work for seeing? After all, images don't provide any sustenance - energy, chemicals, proteins, vitamins and so on - as eating does. Or do they?
Recent developments in brain imaging methods (especially a technique known as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI for short) have revealed some astonishing facts about this incredible organ housed inside our heads ( - 'the most remarkable, versatile, powerful creation we know of' write Drs George Pratt and Peter Lambrou in their book Code for Joy), and the way it connects with the eyes and the body.
What scientists have discovered is that images - and the emotions attached to them - act as the language of the sub-conscious. We know how life-affirming or soul-destroying words can be. Well, for the sub-conscious, images and their associated feelings are those words. This means that the things we see form a language in our subconscious. That's how powerful images are.
This is important because it is our subconscious which is the prime mover in our lives. In fact, it has been likened to the submerged part of an iceberg (about 90% of its mass). Just as it is the unseen part of the iceberg which actually moves all those tons of ice we see, so it is with our brain - the subconscious dictates the direction of our conscious mind. In fact over 99% of the information processing that goes on in our brain is done by the sub-conscious mind, and the way it does that is through emotion-laden images.
'Sunset over Fields', above Glaisdale, North Yorkshire
We all have experience of how images can affect our emotions and mood. Perhaps you've moved by watching the wind playing with the leaves of a tree or the sea, a child's laugh or cry, a particular scene from a film. But can images affect us physically?
Ask anyone in advertising and they'll tell you, 'Of course they can!' You see an advert and the emotion the image produces in you sends you off to the shops (or Amazon)! Dr Pratt also shows that the images in the mind can impact the performance of athletes. (Pratt, p133). In the early 1990's Drs Guang Yue and Kelly Cole demonstrated that merely by imagining doing exercises increased the muscle strength of one group by more than 2/3 that of a second group who were actually doing the same exercises. It may seem difficult to believe but the evidence is there. Many experiments using this 'mental rehearsal technique' in various sports professions carried out over the years have shown significant improvement in performance. In conclusion, imagining doing something prior to the event can positively affect the actual outcome at the event.
Why is this?
It is because 'brain-imaging methods show that when a subject imagines doing something, the exact same areas and pathways in the brain are activated as when actually doing it' (Pratt, p134). In the international bestseller, The Brian that Changes itself, psychoanalyst Dr Norman Doidge writes 'One reason why we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuroscientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not so different as they sound.' It seems that, at least from the brain's point of view, seeing is doing. In his book The Biology of Belief, professor and research scientist Dr Bruce Lipton writes: 'Positive thoughts have a profound effect on behaviour and genes...negative thoughts have an equally powerful effect.' (The Biology of Belief, B Lipton, 2005, p.30)
So meditating upon positive images can have a real, positive effect on our behaviour and even our physical reality. What we allow ourselves to see is very important and influential for our physical and mental health. Hence Paul's advice to the Romans, 'do not conform to the pattern of the world anymore but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (chapter 12, verse 2) was good advice indeed.
And how do we renew our mind? Paul's answer to this is found in his letter to the fledgling church in Philippi, Greece:
‘Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ (Philippians 4:8)
Paul was very aware that for the Greeks, image and thought were inextricably connected - we only have to think of the grace and beauty of the Venus de Milo or the Parthenon and the emotions evoked by such art to realise that.
In conclusion, Jesus and Paul's advice to fill our eyes and minds with good things is because what we look at and think on actually creates an internal reality which influences our external reality for the good (or bad). With the constantly developing techniques of mapping and reading the brain and its interaction with our body, science can now confirm what God's Word tells us - that what we look at can bring about positive and healthy change throughout our whole being and indeed, affect the way we see reality. Therefore looking upon and enjoying a work of art is not only pleasurable but beneficial for us all!