Have you ever found clarity on a canvas? A sense of self through a lump of clay? Do your emotional responses to art making sometimes surprise you? Whether you’re an artist, a therapist, or a patient, you may have wondered about the possibilities of art therapy.
Does it work — and if so, how does it work? Because, of course, it’s not all finger paints and murals: there’s much to understand first about the relationship between art making and the brain, a daunting task for an aspiring art therapist.
In Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, and Resiliency: Skills and Practices, Noah Hass-Cohen and Joanna Clyde Findlay provide a comprehensive look at Art Therapy Relational Neuroscience, or ATR-N for short.
Although it provides intriguing insights into art therapy practice, this is not a book for casual psychology enthusiasts. Rather, Art Therapy lays the foundation for art therapy students and practitioners to better inform their work. Hass-Cohen and Clyde Findlay take us through the complex stages of their research and the six principles of the ATR-N approach: creative embodiment, relational resonating, expressive communicating, adaptive responding, transformative integrating, and empathizing and compassion, which, as they write it, form CREATE.
(Be advised, if you’re not fond of acronyms and initialisms, this is not the book for you.)
Hass-Cohen and Clyde Findlay devote at least one chapter — sometimes as many as four — to each principle, providing examples of exercises, background on neuroscience, and the relationship between the two for every aspect of each concept. If Art Therapy is not always a gripping read, it is absolutely thorough — and, I would imagine, a necessary text for someone in the field.
At its core, Art Therapy emphasizes the necessity of practice. As the authors write, “We emphatically agree that participation in art making forms the most critical foundation for the self-development of a skillful art therapist.” And so it seems highly appropriate that the illustrative materials for the book come from a class of art therapy students.
Much as the text includes technical information, with extensive mappings of the areas of the brain, it also embodies a field devoted to doing. This is inherent to the authors’ definition of art therapy: “Supported by the act of art making, ATR-N practices incorporate sensory and perceptual foci into therapeutic interventions.”
Many of the chapters act as practical and theoretical guides to topics like creative spaces, relationship co-creation and co-regulation, memory, accessing emotion, interpersonal communication, stress, security, transformation, and empathy. The meat of the text, though, is in the exercises the authors give and the discussion they provide of related neurobiological principles. For example, in the third chapter, they discuss the interaction between the development of the creative space and the therapeutic motion of art making. They go over the lower-brain functions that regulate movement and our survival, and establish the emotional connection to different motions, including fear or relief.
Then, they explore the results of a creative exercise called “My Space,” during which their students covered their workspace with heavy paper, decorated it, and then arranged their works as a mural on the wall. Hass-Cohen and Clyde Findlay not only thoroughly describe this and each exercise as well as its intended neurobiological focus, they share the work and reflections of their student group.
For those readers who are not art therapists, this last aspect of each chapter — the students’ experiences — is likely the most appealing. It certainly was for me. The students’ reflections on each exercise do much to illustrate the more abstract ideas in the text.
One meaningful reflection comes Clyde Findlay herself, who gives us her take on a co-created drawing she did with her daughter. “At first I struggled with how to let my daughter know that the way I put my lines next to hers was to show I was there for her,” she writes. As her daughter drew images of issues from her homework — “sad things,” as her daughter puts it — Clyde Findlay made an umbrella to shelter her, but her daughter “still drew clouds. It was a visual reminder that I cannot remove her experience of her problems,” Clyde Findlay writes, “but I can be available to her.”
Reflections like this one offer tremendous insight into the principles of ATR-N, and also allow us to meditate on the different ways an individual might experience and respond to an artistic exercise. The only disappointment I found in these sections was that the students’ artistic works, often described as having carefully chosen and brightly contrasting colors, were in black-and-white in the book, which somewhat diminished their effect.
On the whole, Art Therapy is an incredibly detailed book, as helpful for learning about the brain and its various functions as it is for learning about art therapy. It embodies the notion that neurobiological study and art therapy practice should go hand in hand. The different principles of CREATE build upon each other from chapter to chapter and exercise to exercise, addressing distinct points, but all working toward the same goals: successful communication, emotional intelligence, and empathy, explored via different artistic mediums, with conscious attention to neurobiological structures and responses.
As noted, Art Therapy is not written to be particularly accessible to a lay reader: it is part of a more professional series from Norton. However, for those studying or practicing art therapy, or for a well-informed reader with a particular interest, it is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive text.
Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, and Resiliency: Skills and Practices
W. W. Norton & Company, July 2015
Hardcover, 496 pages