Art collectors gather pieces they consider interesting and beautiful. They use them to enhance their homes and also to exhibit to their friends and others. Some will leave these pieces as a legacy to their children or to a museum. Museum visitors experience the beauty of art, a process that stimulates their pleasure center and makes them happy. The question is: does collecting or viewing art do anything beyond these well-known benefits?
Intuitively, most people would say, “yes.” Now, however, we know the answer does not have to be simply instinctive. Recent research has studied the psychological and physiological benefits of visitors to museums.
Two Scientific Studies Relating to Museum Visits
What is interesting and novel in the two studies described here is that one duplicated the other thirteen years later. This replication gives an opportunity to determine if the results of the first could be reproduced by the second, one of the most recent approaches to verifying data.
In the first study, by Clow and Fredhoi (2006), subjects self-reported stress and arousal levels, and salivary cortisol was recorded before and after a museum visit. The same approach was repeated in the later study by Ter-Kazarian and Luke (2019). “Stress levels” refers to a general sense of wellbeing related to pleasantness or unpleasantness. “Arousal” implies feelings of wakefulness versus drowsiness. Saliva cortisol levels are used as a physiological indicator of stress.
Clow and Fredhoi examined 28 city workers (half male, half female) who visited a major art institution in London (the Guildhall Art Gallery) during their lunch break. Their self-reported stress dropped 45 percent after the visit, while their self-reported arousal remained unchanged. Their salivary cortisol levels decreased.
Ter-Kazarian and Luke (2019) examined 31 local professionals (21 female; 10 male) who visited the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle, Wash. during their lunch hour. Their self-reported stress level dropped 72 percent while their self-reported arousal dropped 28 percent. Their saliva cortisol was unchanged.
Though the results of the two studies demonstrate a drop in self-reported stress levels related to a museum visit during a lunch hour, the self-reported arousal and saliva cortisols did not correlate. There are many factors which may contribute to this disparity (for more on that, see the Ter-Kazarian paper in the references below). What is clear, beyond the drop in self-reported stress during both museum visits, is that further study is needed to clarify the disparities found in the self-reported arousal and physiological measurements of saliva cortisol.
A Third and Different Scientific Approach Relating to Museum Visits
In yet another study (Mastandrea et al., 2019), blood pressure and heart rate were assessed in young healthy women (n = 77) before and after three different visits to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. During one visit, study subjects viewed figurative art; during another, modern art; and during the third, the museum office. The latter was designated the control visit.
During the figurative art visit, the participants’ systolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats) decreased. This is considered an indication of stress reduction since stress is known to increase blood pressure. There was no change in heart rate or diastolic blood pressure (the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats). It was curious that the subjects liked both types of art (figurative and modern) similarity, but it was only the figurative that decreased systolic blood pressure.
In conclusion, there appear to be benefits beyond stimulation of the pleasure center when viewing art. Though not definitively teased out, science definitely has a start in this exciting and cutting-edge area.