Art collectors collect pieces that they find interesting and beautiful. They use them to beautify their homes and also to display 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 looking at art do anything other than these well-known benefits?
Intuitively, most people would say “yes”. Now, however, we know the answer doesn’t have to be just instinctive. Recent research has investigated the psychological and physiological benefits of museum visitors.
Two scientific studies on museum visits
What is interesting and new in the two studies described here is that one duplicates the other thirteen years later. This replication makes it possible to determine whether the results of the first could be reproduced by the second, one of the most recent approaches to data verification.
In the first study, by Clow and Fredhoi (2006), subjects reported their level of stress and arousal, 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” refer to a general sense of well-being related to pleasantness or unpleasantness. “Arousal” involves feelings of wakefulness versus drowsiness. Salivary 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 by 45% after the visit, while their self-reported excitement remained unchanged. Their salivary cortisol levels decreased.
Ter-Kazarian and Luke (2019) examined 31 local professionals (21 women, 10 men) who visited the Bellevue Arts Museum in Seattle, Washington during their lunch hour. Their self-reported level of stress dropped by 72% while their self-reported excitement dropped by 28%. Their salivary cortisol was unchanged.
Although the results of both studies demonstrate a drop in self-reported stress levels related to visiting the museum during lunchtime, self-reported arousal and salivary cortisols were not correlated. Many factors can contribute to this disparity (for more, see Ter-Kazarian’s article in References below). What is clear, beyond the decline in self-reported stress across both museum visits, is that further study is needed to clarify the disparities found in self-reported arousal and physiological measures of salivary cortisol.
A third and different scientific approach to museum visits
In another study (Mastandrea et al., 2019), blood pressure and heart rate were assessed in healthy young 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; for another, modern art; and during the third, the museum office. The latter was designated as a follow-up visit.
During the figurative art tour, 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 raise 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 the similarity of the two types of art (figurative and modern), but it was only the figurative that lowered systolic blood pressure.
In conclusion, there appear to be benefits beyond stimulation of the pleasure center when viewing art. Although not definitively unveiled, science definitely has a beginning in this exciting and cutting-edge field.