Healing with Abstract Art

When I was about 8 years old, my chiropractor discovered mild scoliosis in my back  and prescribed some exercises I could do at home to correct the unnatural curvature. I remember finding these exercises time consuming and boring, and as a young child I had other plans for how I wanted to spend my afternoons. Lise Worthen-Chaudhari, a researcher at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State University, attempted to solve the problem of monotonous rehabilitation by pioneering a motion-capture software that turns patients into artists.

Lise Worthen-Chaudhari with a patient

I had the chance to go with my Professor to visit one of OSU’s medical centers and talk with Lise about her technology. Agile Arts (website is Rekovo.com) works by attaching a mouse onto the patient’s body (leg, pelvis, wrist, etc.), which is connected wirelessly to a big screen. When the patient moves this area while performing their rehabilitation exercises, a line of colored dots appears on the screen in front of them. Lise set up her computer screen and let me try it out for myself. It was fascinating how even the smallest movements could be detected by the sensor and produce a colorful response. However, it was immediately clear to me that the system did not work how I expected it to; that is, the sensor does not work linearly, nor does it sense depth. The result is that you may think you have control over where the colored line will appear, but it can fool you. Lise explained how the sensor is actually a gyroscope so it only detects arcs of movement, which explained my confusion. Actually, she said, this unpredictability of pattering works to the patient’s advantage, because if the line was predictable the patient would become bored with the exercise a lot faster. And this goes for the color too, for the color spontaneously changes as they patient continues moving. For me, this lack of control is frustrating, but Lise explained that the point is to get patients our of their heads, out of their thoughts, and to just “play.”

A patient’s artwork

It’s easy to see how this kind of interaction between, patient and technology, would increase a patient’s willingness to complete healing exercises, and ultimately, get better sooner. But why choose art as the medium of distraction? Surely there are other techniques you could use, such as a reward system, to get patients to do their exercises, right? What is it about art that is so therapeutic? I only talked about this briefly with Lise, as she discussed how many patients find a sort of trance state when they look at the screen, and how different color pallets work better for certain injuries. After the visit, however, I took to Google to see if I could find any other information about the effects of art on our brains. I found a study conducted by the University of Westminster, which took a group of participants to an art gallery and then studied their brain activity immediately after. They found that the participants’ levels of cortisol (stress hormone), as well as their self-reported stress, were significantly lower after viewing the art. This shows that art can decrease stress, even at the neural level. I actually found this to be true in my body after messing around with the sensor: I felt as though I had been put in a trance, and watching the digital painting evolve and unfold made me more relaxed. Several more articles and studies came up linking art with stress reduction and art with increased creativity, but I ended up going in another direction with the research.

neurons-synapseAnother thing Lise talked to us about was the concept of brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity), and how her technology enhances the brain’s ability to do this. But what is brain plasticity and why should I care? I found a website called BrainHQ, a company which sells online brain exercises to treat a variety of conditions mostly concerning memory loss and aging. They also provide a number of resources about how the brain works and about neuroplasticity. From what I understand, plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to construct, alter, or destroy neural pathways. When we learn something, our brain forms a new neural connection, and when we forget something, or our bodies become injured, that connection is damaged. This idea is important in rehabilitation because this plasticity is what allows the healing to happen in the brain, which in turn drives the physical healing process. In another section, the site explained how online games and exercises to increase brain function are great, because unlike other treatments which involve a medication or even a surgical procedure, these activities are “less invasive.” I chuckled a little at this wording, because I think the emphasis should be on “less.” It seems to me that if they claim these brain exercises will promote neuroplasticity, that is actually one of the most invasive and intimate ways to treat your body. The word “invasive” often carries a negative connotation with it, and treatments that interfere with the body’s naturally ability to heal itself are often characterized in a negative light. However, isn’t this technology doing the same thing? And Lise’s invention, isn’t it in this category as well? I think the word “invasive” should actually be seen as a positive thing here, for these kinds of technologies are allowing for the repairment of neural pathways that lead people to better health. And in Lise’s case, she is turning her patients into artists, which is lowering their stress and building neural pathways. Technology can be pretty cool.



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