In researching how science is catching up to Indigenous knowledge I often come across the idea of art as medicine. Today mainstream science uses art therapy to improve communication and social skills, academic skills, motor skills and attention span. Art can help you manage pain, reduce stress and improve your heart health.
At my core I understand that art medicines impact us spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. In the last of this 3-part article let’s explore what mainstream science might offer to our understanding of art as medicine.
I recently visited Rotorua, considered the geothermal capital of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the area, the Maori inhabitants of the region considered its many geysers, hot springs and crater lakes to be a source of healing. When Europeans arrived, they too found the land to be medicinal and evicted Maori from their communities so they could build spas and complimentary services for tourists. In the early 20th century a group European trained doctors visited Rotorua aiming to determine if and how the sulphur-infused environment was good for one’s health. They concluded the whole idea was a myth. The spas were perpetrating a fraud, they said. There was nothing about Rotorua’s geothermal activity that promoted wellbeing. As far as I understand, the debate is ongoing to this day.
Eventually, through the political efforts of Maori people, many of them were given permission to return to their lands. There are active communities again living in Rotorua and Maori have taken charge of the tourist industry, sharing what they wish of their culture and history and inviting visitors into parts of their communities while ensuring privacy for other areas.
While touring the area myself, I noticed official signs had been posted warning visitors away from dangerous areas that erupted boiling water and hot gasses on a regular basis. These signs listed the chemicals that rose out of the geysers and gurgling mud pools surrounding me. One of the mixtures created by the gasses being coughed out by the earth into the air was nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas because it makes you feel good. Our bodies produce nitrous oxide when we feel joyful and well. The more our body produces the better we feel, the better we feel the more our body produces. It’s also part of our sexual experience and the more nitrous oxide you produce the more likely you are to orgasm and the more powerful you experience your orgasm.
So, despite the smell of sulphur in the air, it could certainly be that the original Maori and later White settlers of Rotorua benefitted from the good feelings the nitrous oxide produced. That’s the start of an explanation for Rotorua’s healing powers. If you dig deeper you might learn that the placebo effect is more likely to occur in folks that have high levels of nitrous oxide in their blood stream. Traditional Maori wellbeing, healing and healthcare practices relied to a great degree on the mind/body connection. This is an energetic or spiritual connection. The bio-electric energy of your thoughts and feelings impact your body, healing it. That’s what the placebo effect is. A spiritual effect that results in healing.
So maybe Indigenous knowledge and other forms of ancient knowledges are not just superstition and nonsense. Maybe our understanding of energetic interactions and how we are impacted by them has some validity. So when our Elders, Healers and Knowledge Holders refer to something as medicine they probably know what they’re talking about and science might be starting to understand in its own way what our wise peoples have always known.
These days scientists are looking at the ongoing exchange of energies that is constant among subatomic particles. Photons (particles of light) and other forms of energy are always, in every moment, being exchanged. If you can imagine a subatomic ping pong match and then think about how that works in a three-dimensional spider web, where every string, every point, every intersection of that web is in constant communication, sending out signals into all directions as they likewise receive them. Science may not know what that communication is about but you might want to think about your body in this regard.
Science now understands that every cell in our body is constantly communicating with all other cells through chemical and bio-electrical signals. This communication coordinates the immune reaction, the healing process and many other bodily activities.
There are scientists now working on the idea that the light frequencies the body (or parts of the body) give off can signal illness and injury. Likewise certain light patterns might be able to restore wellness. This is certainly the case with the laser (light) therapy my creaky old knees receive at Anishnawbe Health Toronto. Light therapy is a very exciting area of study that is consistent with Indigenous and other forms of knowledge. Light is one way that our universe communicates with itself.
There is a lot of chatter among objects at the cellular, molecular and sub atomic level throughout our universe. Energies are transmitted and received all the time. Energy always contains information. So if you can understand this you might understand how visual art, designs, rhythms and other items can receive and transmit healing and other types of energy. You might better understand or at least be open to the idea that any type of art can absorb, contain and give off unique vibrations of energy that impact us, even if it is below the level of our awareness.
Isn’t it possible that First Nations people who talk of sacred places on the Earth where ceremonies are most effective know what they’re talking about? Could it be that songs that are sung, dances that are performed and the plants and animals involved in healing rituals might be interacting with us at the energetic level, supporting our healing and wellness?
Energies intersect and sync up all the time. One form of energy may be more influential than another but usually when energies collide both are changed in some way. We know that heart and brain wave patterns as well as magnetic fields sync up among humans and across species. We can measure this now. Energy exchanges mostly happen below the level of your awareness. Yet they still impact you. So you might want to consider this when you encounter art, particularly sacred art because it is so powerful.
In any case, sharing this information leaves me hopeful that people who appropriate works of art and culture or keep it locked up in art galleries, museums and private collections might think twice about how they are being impacted by the spiritual energies they have disrespected.
In sum, mainstream science is only beginning to grapple with how alive everything in our universe is and how we all connect and communicate. Art medicine is only one of many tools we have at our disposal to manage our individual and collective wellbeing.