Tuesday, January 4, 2011


 “For me, writing is the only valid medicine I have against the flue, old age, depression, and so on. So that is what I do every day." 
    - May Sarton, quoted in “Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary Ordinary People on the Art of Staying Creative, Alive, and Aware in Midlife and Beyond"

     Poet May Sarton, famous for her prolific journaling, wasn't just inventing a clever metaphor when she spoke of writing as her proverbial shot in the arm. Writing is medicine.
    The connection between creativity and good mental health has had a long history. After Cicero finished “On Old Age,” the Roman scholar concluded that writing the book had “not only wiped away all the annoyances of old age, but rendered it easy and pleasing.” For years psychologists and psychiatrists have been urging their patients to start journals to write down their feelings, to sing, dance or take up painting, stressing the psychological and emotional benefits of creative activity.
     But more recently scientists are beginning to discover that it's not only mental health that's aided by creative pursuits. Engaging in creative activities actually improves our physical well-being as well. 
     Writing as a cure for the Big C?
      Don't laugh. In 1989 a pioneering study by psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas may not have proven that writing could cure cancer, but it did record health improvements in those students who wrote down how they felt versus those who didn't. 
       Consider the power of music. As Oliver Sacks, author of “The Awakening,” told the 1991 hearings of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, music can have a remarkable effect on those who are ill:  “…one sees Parkinsonian patients unable to walk, but able to dance perfectly well, or  patients almost unable to talk, who can sing perfectly well.”  
      In 2008, Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, concluded a three-year national study of Creativity & Aging, tracking the impact that community-based art programs had on the mental and physical health of men and women age 65-103. The results were astonishing. The participants who took part in singing, writing and painting groups clocked in fewer visits to the doctor, complained of fewer ailments and reported a greater sense of well being than the control group which was not active in the arts. 
     The brain, once thought to be set in stone at an early age, turns out to be quite plastic and subject to change. Older brains might even be more adaptable than younger ones. Engaging in creative activity creates new neurological pathways that bolster our immune systems, which makes us able to fight off disease and deterioration. Our brain neurons are nudged into new patterns and, even more remarkably, are encouraged to grow entirely new connections. In other words, creativity is literally mind blowing (well, at least brain expanding).
     So who can afford NOT to be creative?


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