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Monday, April 15, 2024

Virtual conference explores use of art experiences to reduce burden of pain

The conference, co-hosted by a UC Davis assistant professor, opened a conversation between scientists, museum and healthcare professionals and individuals living with chronic pain

By SONORA SLATER — science@theaggie.org

Have you ever insisted to your best friend that when you listen to your favorite song you feel less anxious, less depressed or less lonely? Or have you recommended someone a book that you loved because it made you feel understood for the first time? 

For generations, we’ve instinctively turned to the arts to distract us and support us through hard times. But, as it turns out, there’s scientific backing for using the arts to relieve pain. 

On March 11, a free virtual conference titled “The Analgesic Museum” explored this idea by hosting several panelists to discuss the different ways the arts can “reduce the burden of pain,” according to a recent press release.

The event was co-hosted by Ian Koebner, an assistant professor in the Division of Pain Medicine at the UC Davis School of Medicine, and had 157 registrants from 22 countries.

In the conference introduction, Koebner described the collaborative nature they hoped to inspire through inviting a diverse group of speakers to the event.

“The intention of this conference is really to seed an interdisciplinary, international network of scientists, of museum and healthcare professionals, of individuals living with pain and of artists committed to exploring the aesthetics and impact of museum engagement to reduce the burden of pain,” Koebner said.

The conference sought to cover three main areas of interest, according to Koebner: exhibition development, arts experiences and practices and research and creative scholarship. They hosted speakers from each of these areas of interest, and the presentations were followed by moderated discussions.

Koebner explained that, in the past, there has been a disconnect between art organizations like museums and public health.

“This social standing is likely multifactorial,” Koebner said. “The result of an ‘art for art’s sake’ view that wishes to divorce true art from any intended function or purpose, or maybe a public that is hesitant or even derisive of the notion that institutions, many of which were originally designed to house privileged artifacts of the elite or that currently house collections taken through colonialism and imperialism, can help to heal anything.”

However, he went on to say that in recent years this has started to change, as initiatives have emerged to examine the intersection of art and health, and scientific scholars have developed a body of research that “supports the role of the arts in promoting health.”

Manon Parry, a professor of medical history at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and one of the speakers at the conference, noted during her presentation a couple of things to which this change could be attributed.

“[Museums] increasingly recognize that visitors are often seeking out spaces to engage with ideas about […] what’s deemed normal or abnormal, or healthy or unhealthy,” Parry said. “There’s also a growing recognition that addressing disabled audiences doesn’t mean reaching only a small minority and that, in fact, addressing these topics helps all of us because we’re all affected by ableist ideas about what wellness is and by the stigma that can accompany illness.”

Still, Koebner said in the conference that the work done on these topics is limited.

“[The question is], why should we devote creative, financial and intellectual resources to considering how the arts can reduce the burden of pain in particular?” Koebner said.

To begin with, these resources would be appropriately used because chronic pain affects more than 30% of people worldwide, and in the U.S. alone, an estimated 100 million Americans live with persistent pain, according to Koebner. Also, in the U.S., long-term pain costs approximately $600 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity. 

Despite the fact that a lack of participation in social activities is associated with higher pain intensity and distress, a survey of healthcare providers and pain clinics revealed that 89% believed “patients’ social health was not relevant to their clinical practice or was outside their scope of practice,” according to Koebner. 

“It is important because individuals living with pain say so,” Koebner said during the conference. “Satisfaction with social roles and relationships may be a more salient predictor of emotional well-being than physical functioning in patients with chronic pain.”

Koebner believes that museums can be one place to provide this necessary sense of connection and belonging. 

“Museums and art spaces can […] be restorative environments,” Koebner said. “[They can] provide opportunities for learning and acquiring new skills, calm and reduce anxiety and provide new and novel aesthetically strange experiences that may be inspirational and meaningful.” 

Melissa Menzer, a senior program analyst for the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke during her presentation on music, another aspect of arts experience. Music is the most researched medium of art and healing, according to Menzer.

“Music listening was shown to reduce post operative pain, chronic pain and the need to take pain medication,” Menzer said during the conference. “Music was also shown to improve readiness and motivation for substance use disorder treatment and to reduce cravings.”

Christopher Bailey, the Arts and Health Lead for the World Health Organization and a speaker at the conference, used his interactions with his father-in-law, who was a pianist his entire life before being diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s, to illustrate the impact of art on suffering.

“He would walk around during the day with a state of anxious confusion, not knowing where he was, why he was there,” Bailey said during the conference. “When he would approach the piano, sometimes he wouldn’t recognize what a piano was. He would forget that he knew how to play. But once his hands were placed on the keys, the motor muscle memory began to take over and he began to play — not perfectly, but fluently, and […] he would have an extended three, four minutes of pleasure.”

Bailey emphasized that this wasn’t a cure; it didn’t reverse the progress of the disease. However, it did offer his father-in-law “moments of relief.”

“How many moments were they not in a state of anxiety?” Bailey said. “How many moments was there a social interaction? How many moments was there a memory that was elicited? These are like gold for a dementia patient because these are the very foundations of our taken-for-granted normal existence that they lose. It had a profound effect — maybe not prolonged, but those moments are essential.”

Koebner concluded his introduction by presenting the conference as the first step to what he hopes will become a larger conversation and movement.

“For some, pain is a clinical problem to be solved,” Koebner said. “For others it is an integrated part of a thriving life. Some attempt to frame it in biomedical terms, others as a social justice issue. And, of course, it is all of these and more. I imagine that not all of the approaches discussed today will resonate with everyone, and so please accept this conference as a first step of first conversation to critique and build upon.”

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

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