Visiting a museum can have measurable mental health benefits, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
Pay careful attention to what the guide says. When you get home, try to reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember. Research into brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to change at any age) indicates that memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering, and thinking—help to improve the function (and hinder the rate of decline) of the brain.
Penn’s Positive Psychology Center has been analyzing a wide swath of psychological research associated with arts and culture, showing museums – in particular art museums – are good at reducing anxiety and depression.
“We’re seeing that going to an art museum is really effective at reducing your stress,” said postdoctoral fellow Katherine Cotter, who recently published her results in The Journal of Positive Psychology. “If we think about the stress hormone cortisol, there’s been a few studies examining if you just go for half an hour to an art museum and measure people’s cortisol levels before they go in, after half an hour it shows the kind of recovery time [normally] equivalent to a few hours.”
Cotter reviewed about 100 published reports from various disciplines related to arts and psychology to find research consensus that attending art museums – as opposed to experiencing art in the street, in a classroom, or online – can have mental health benefits.
“When we enter a museum, we’re entering it with an intention. We’re entering this particular space that has unique art, architecture, and has unique things that we’re going to be seeing whether it’s an art museum or another form of museum or cultural institution,” she said. “We engage different mindsets and different cognitive processes. Once we get into the meat and potatoes of the museum visit, we see ourselves more concerned communally, thinking about how things are interrelated in the world more broadly.”