Can visiting an art museum help reduce stress?

Art collectors collect works that they find interesting and beautiful. They use them to improve their homes and also expose them to their friends and others. Some will leave these items to their children or to a museum. Visitors to the museum experience the beauty of art, a process that stimulates their pleasure center and makes them happy. The question is: does collecting or viewing art do anything beyond these well-known benefits?

Intuitively, most people would say yes. But now we know that the answer does not have to be just instinctive. Recent research has examined the psychological and physiological benefits of museum visitors.

Two scientific studies related to visits to museums

The interesting and new thing 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 can be reproduced by the second, one of the newest approaches to data verification.

In the first study by Clow and Fredhoi (2006), subjects themselves reported levels of stress and arousal, and cortisol in saliva was recorded before and after a visit to the museum. The same approach was repeated in a later study by Ter-Ghazaryan and Luke (2019). “Stress levels” refers to a general feeling of well-being associated with pleasure or adversity. “Excitement” implies a feeling of wakefulness against drowsiness. Salivary cortisol levels are used as a physiological indicator of stress.

Clow and Fredoy surveyed 28 city workers (half men, half women) who visited a large art institution in London (Guildhall Art Gallery) during their lunch break. Their self-reported stress dropped by 45 percent after the visit, while their excitement remained unchanged. Their salivary cortisol levels decrease.

Ter-Ghazaryan and Luke (2019) surveyed 31 local professionals (21 women; 10 men) who visited the Bellevue Museum of Art in Seattle, Washington during lunch. The self-reported stress level dropped by 72 percent, while their excitement dropped by 28 percent. The cortisol in their saliva was unchanged.

Although the results of both studies showed a decrease in self-reported levels of stress associated with visiting a museum during lunch, self-assessed arousal and cortisol in saliva did not correlate. There are many factors that may contribute to this discrepancy (for more information, see Ter-Ghazaryan’s document in the references below). What is clear beyond the decline in self-reported stress during the two museum visits is that further research is needed to clarify the differences found in self-assessed arousal and physiological measurements of cortisol in saliva.

Third and different scientific approach related to museum visits

In another study (Mastandrea et al., 2019), blood pressure and heart rate were assessed in young healthy women (n = 77) before and after three different visits to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. During one visit, the subjects studied figurative art; during another, modern art; and during the third – the museum office. The latter was designated for a follow-up visit.

During the visit to the figurative art, the participants’ systolic blood pressure (the pressure in the arteries during the heartbeat) decreased. This is considered an indication to reduce stress, as stress is known to raise blood pressure. There was no change in heart rate or diastolic blood pressure (pressure in the arteries when your heart is resting between beats). Curiously, the subjects liked both art (figurative and modern) similarities, but only the figurative reduced systolic blood pressure.

In conclusion, there seem to be benefits beyond stimulating the pleasure center when watching art. Although not completely irritated, science definitely has a beginning in this exciting and avant-garde field.

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