Looking at Art Online Has a Similar Effect on Mental Health as Looking at Physical Art


Key Takeaways

  • When participants engaged with online art exhibitions for less than 5 minutes, it improved their moods, feelings of loneliness, wellbeing, etc.
  • These changes were associated with aesthetic appraisals and cognitive-emotional experiences of the art exhibition.
  • These findings hold promise for how online art can be utilized to improve mental health among the public, who may not regularly access art in person.

Art has long been known to affect our psyche. Now, a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that even brief viewing of art online can improve moods through cognitive-emotional experiences.

When study participants were asked to explore online exhibitions of either a Monet painting or a display of Japanese culinary traditions, they reported improved mental health and reduced negative moods with just a couple minutes of engagement.

Researchers note that their results bode well for making the benefits of art more accessible to the public in terms of positive mental health impacts.

Just 5 Minutes of Art Can Help Your Brain

This study found that people who view art digitally, even for a mere 5 minutes, experience the same positive effects as viewing art in person, including a reduction in negative mood, loneliness, and anxiety.

Researchers note that such cultural engagement may offer the possibility of regulating moods, contributing to other positive impacts for participants who are increasingly viewing art digitally since COVID-19.

These research findings align well with earlier studies, which found that viewing nature could positively impact participants’ mental health. This study had limitations such as a relatively small sample size and findings that were based on the self-reporting of participants.

Benefits of Art Extend to Virtual Spaces

Licensed mental health counselor who specializes in holistic therapy, family support, and anxiety disorders, Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC, says, “Readers can absolutely take way that looking at art in either a digital or traditional fashion has a positive impact on mental health and wellness including improving negative mood and decreasing anxiety.”

Chamberlain explains, “Although this was a small study including only 84 participants, it builds upon an established concept that looking at art improves well-being. The study is examining whether or not individuals can reap some of these same benefits in a virtual setting and the data points to yes.” 

These findings are in line with previous research about the impacts of viewing art on mental health but translate to a virtual setting, according to Chamberlain. “This is important because it increases access to a potentially valuable tool in the pursuit of wellness,” she says. 

Chamberlain highlights, “The sample size is relatively small which could be a potential limitation although, since the findings are in line with previous data this may not prove to be a factor.”

Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC

This is an important tool in the toolbox but one cannot fix everything with a hammer, meaning, that this may be a valuable tool for some, and may have no impact on others.

— Julia M. Chamberlain MS, INHC, LMHC

Since this exploratory study only featured a choice of two paintings, Chamberlain notes, “This is an asset in determining that this particular subject matter has a positive impact on mental health but conversely poses the question if other subject matter (more serious, sad, religious, or political) would have the same positive impact on mental health.” 

Especially given how oppression operates, Chamberlain notes this could potentially be a great tool for individuals in rural areas, in hospitals, or who are homebound to access art and foster mental wellness. 

Chamberlain explains, “It’s important to note that some art has controversial subject matter, and some historic art pieces may even have content that is insensitive or offensive to some viewers. It is important to examine how viewing this type of art could impact mental health, especially if the subject matter triggers a trauma response in the viewer.” 

Everyone is different, so Chamberlain notes that there is no intervention that is one-size-fits-all. “This is an important tool in the toolbox but one cannot fix everything with a hammer, meaning, that this may be a valuable tool for some, and may have no impact on others,” she says. 

Accessible Art Improves Mental Health

Anna Boyd, LPC, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health, asks, “Have you ever thought about why pediatric doctor’s offices are filled with fun illustrations and playful colors? Research continues to support the idea that viewing and experiencing art holds the capacity to reduce feelings of loneliness and combat depressive symptoms.”

Boyd explains, “This study explores whether the experience of viewing art can hold the same power even if you’re only able to experience it digitally. Accessibility is more available than before, and artists from across the globe are finding new ways to share, collaborate, and present their work.”

The bigger question serves to answer whether digital art elicits the same benefits as going to a museum or experiencing art firsthand, which is where this study comes into the picture, according to Boyd. 

The findings of this research study conclude that digital and online art can evoke emotional responses, yet Boyd notes that the level of engagement was much lower than those who experienced art in the community.

Boyd highlights, “With the level of social media and technology, anxiety has risen and levels of concentration have decreased. Individuals who are in more isolated areas can potentially benefit from online art.”

Anna Boyd, LPC

Art creates a level of aesthetic distance that creates emotional safety…If there is a level of feeling removed from the story directly, we can relate to art and stories in a new way that promotes healing and personal growth.

— Anna Boyd, LPC

Having worked in assertive community treatment programs, Boyd notes that art engagement can help individuals who have chronic and persistent illnesses to integrate into the community in a meaningful way.

Boyd explains, “I have personally attended art museums, libraries, theater, opera, and other forms of art with my clients. This led to a stronger sense of belonging and opportunity for clients who were experiencing difficult identity disorders and depressive symptoms.” 

As a creative arts therapist, Boyd has witnessed art as a modality of language that allows clients to articulate their experiences through the lens of imagery. “Limbic experiences of the brain engage both the emotional and somatic processing of stories,” she says.

Boyd highlights, “Art creates a level of aesthetic distance that creates emotional safety when recalling painful stories. If there is a level of feeling removed from the story directly, we can relate to art and stories in a new way that promotes healing and personal growth.”

It is why Boyd encourages any individual who is curious about deepening their social connectedness and sense of meaning to attend fairs and museums, while also complementing this work with online resources. “This study is an important measure for the promising nature of our world’s new accessibility to art,” she says.

What This Means For You

This study shows that the psychological benefits of art extend to online exhibits. In the future, people in hospitals, rural areas, etc. may have more access to art that has the potential to improve their mental health. If you or someone you love has yet to explore online art, this research is a good reason to get started.

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