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AI: Can Art Make You Healthier?

How did I miss this? A study at UC Berkeley “shows that positive emotions — such as awe, content, pride and joy — are beneficial for human health and the immune system.” Two separate experiments asked over 200 people to self-report the degree to which they were experiencing positive emotions, with samples of cheek and gum tissue taken for analysis.

While some articles reporting on the research do use the ludicrous “boost your immune system” phrase, coverage of the studies implies that viewing impressive, beautiful, or awe-inspiring art is associated with lower levels of cytokine, Interleukin 6, a marker of inflammation that has also been tied to depression.

Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, said that in a healthy sample, lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines are good because high levels of cytokines are unnecessary unless the individual is sick or injured. For acute responses to illness, infection or injury, proinflammatory cytokines are useful, but not when they are chronically elevated.

According to Stellar, the tendency to experience awe had the strongest association with lower levels of cytokines.

Though many studies have examined the effects of depression on health, this is one of the first to look at how positive emotions might impact one’s physical well-being. Researchers will next seek to replicate these findings in blood, since the IL-6 levels in this study were measured in oral mucosal transudate (OMT).

That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist and study co-author Dacher Keltner.

So what do you think? Does viewing art or awe-inspiring vistas make you feel better? Would you be inclined to believe this conclusion? Is it premature to claim that it’s art-viewing that lowers cytokine levels? Are you also tired of the wildly inaccurate phrase “boosts your immune system”? Have you viewed any amazing art recently that made you feel awesome?

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab reader. It appears on random days at 3pm ET… Because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!

Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Stellar, Jennifer E.; John-Henderson, Neha; Anderson, Craig L.; Gordon, Amie M.; McNeil, Galen D.; Keltner, Dacher. Emotion, Vol 15(2), Apr 2015, 129-133.

Researchers prove that awe lowers level of proinflammatory cytokines. Robert Patrick Van Tooke, The Daily Californian, 5 February 2015

Add nature, art and religion to life’s best anti-inflammatories. Yasmin Anwar, Berkeley News, 2 February 2015


Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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