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Art and the Brain in the Age of Pandemics *Introduction Sample*

A future E-book that is underway will feature the art of the COVID-19 Children and Adult Art Contest.  I will explore the source of creative expression and how it is offers refuge during the current pandemic.  Featured will be submissions from several artists from the contest about how art helps them process their feelings, factoring in the current times and their life events.  Attached is an unedited sample of the developing book.  Your Health Forum will plan launching the E-book sometime in the late fall.  Stay-tuned for updates.

Art in the Age of the Pandemics:  How to Unlock the Brain’s Creativity




“We’re not ready for the next pandemic.” Bill Gates, 2015 TED talk


The fear factor that comes with the novel coronavirus is distinct from our yearly adjustments to the flu and cold season. We have access to daily news of the increasing death toll and the impact it has had on the world, from the scope of country to individual cases. As the world awakens from its social isolation slumber, we face the fear that we may need to continue to adjust from this time forward; that it doesn’t just disappear during warmer weather. We have no safety in a vaccine or reliable treatment for this infection. Even though the overwhelming majority of people who succumb to this infection have chronic illnesses and advanced age, it offers no relief or consolation, when we or our loved ones are in that category. It can even cause severe infection and death in those “otherwise healthy.”

We are living through an unprecedented time, through history. And yes, it is confusing and messy. Other than not being able to eat in restaurants, congregate in social settings, and exercise in the gym, the pandemic has crippled our other avenues of socialization and leisure, including the arts. There is a growing list of cancellations and closures, including cultural events, concerts, museums, and art exhibitions. In many ways, our lives have been upheaved and reduced to a waiting game without a certain endpoint. Has this also dealt a finishing blow to one of the greatest forms of human expression -Art?
Of course not! On the contrary, I hope to show that art’s purpose, flexibility and range will not only survive but flourish through this collective experience. This book offers a revelation of the works and insights of artists as they grapple with COVID-19. What follows is a review of the benefits of art, how other pandemics have shaped the underlying themes, and a glimpse into the neuroscience of artistic expression. Finally, I discuss art as therapy, including the points-of-view of lifelong artists. The book includes a working gallery of COVID-19 artwork from both children and adults.



Chapter 1: Introduction

“Art is man’s refuge from adversity”. Menander

In many ways, our lives are like a visualized work of art. Our brain processes the external environment, entwines past associations into its interpretations, and then paints an imagined experience into our consciousness. The reality before us is as much factual as it is biased interpretation. No two of us share the same creation of reality even if the same event is unfolding before us.
Art is like a bridge that allows us to step inside a person’s mind. Its image may describe something that is as personal as it is universal. Art emerges from the brain’s language centers, yet is not bound by language. Art transcends the sharp or smooth edges that confines it, offering an expanse of interpretations and inspirations. Its colors and shapes form symbols that open the mind to a range of perspectives.

It is with the palette of colors and tools that art offers a refuge to humans, a doorway to a past, present and future. Whatever the hardships or challenges that befall one in life, art may provide a method of transmutation, of liberation, of any thoughts of fear, longing, hope, anxiety and anger. A glimpse of the Seine River captured by impressionist artist Claude Monet during that morning; distorted images of timepieces and landscapes captured by surrealist Salvador Dali in the Persistence of Memory; blends of color, lines, and patterns as assembled by abstract artist Jackson Pollock. Artists construct their pieces either by plan or accident while their brains coordinate their thoughts into actions, channeling their movements through the tools of paint on a paintbrush. The experience relies on the artist’ deliberate decision to be in the moment.

When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly altered the patterns of human movement by its tidal wave, for a brief moment it seemed that art was washed away in the deluge. In a sweeping instant the world’s museums, presentations, exhibits, meetings, and collaborations were canceled. However, art is as necessary a part in human existence as any form of communication. The public spaces may have closed, but art continues to thrive.

Call it part of the human experience that art can capture the psyche of a moment in history; the ghost of the time, or “zeitgeist.” In the unfolding events of the pandemic, art is inextricably tied to this experience. At the core of this, is how the stimulus of an external force, the barrage of news, both real and perceived fears, and our grasp on our own mortality, literally shapes neural pathways in the brain. Humans are dynamic and adaptive; our brains are constantly adjusting to external cues, pressures and traumas, processing and rewiring. The alterations of our dreams toward themes related to the COVID-19, fear of illness, or other isolating or confining motifs, are the same seeds which fuel the art that we choose to construct.

This book offers a glimpse into how the brain captures, processes and expresses the external prompts of the pandemic that are currently our shared reality. It all starts when the brain transforms these inputs into memories and emotions and applies a weight to the experience, which begins to shape the brain and its perceived reality. In Chapter 2, I will take you on a nosedive into how the brain processes art, the neurotransmitters involved, and the concept of neuroplasticity. In Chapter 3, the events of the pandemic and effect of social isolation will be discussed to increase one’s understanding of its impact on our brains. In Chapter 4, I will describe how other infectious disease pandemics have shaped the art of those periods. Next, in Chapter 5, a bridge will be made from inputs to outputs, as I discuss how art can be a tool for processing and healing during real or perceived traumatic events. Lastly in Chapter 6, a few artists have included their personal insight on how art has allowed them to process the world around them, as well as helped them to overcome their personal struggles. Art can truly be redemptive and renewing. The last section of the book is a gallery of some of the early art influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Your Health Forum sponsored several art contests during our time of social isolation, and gratefully I am able to share these perceptions, these images, as we live through truly historical times.

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