Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2018

Art for better health and wellbeing

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 21 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5353
  1. Bastiaan R Bloem, professor of neurology1,
  2. Ilja L Pfeijffer, Dutch poet and writer2,
  3. Paul Krack, professor of neurology3
  1. 1Radboud University Medical Centre; Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Department of Neurology, Nijmegen, Netherlands
  2. 2Genoa, Italy
  3. 3Department of Neurology, Centre for Movement Disorders, Inselspital, Bern University Hospital, University of Bern, Switzerland
  1. bas.bloem{at}

Art can inspire the medical world towards more personalised care, write Bastiaan R Bloem and colleagues

  • The time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.”

    • William Burroughs, US writer and visual artist, cited by Andrew Lees in Mentored by a Madman1

At first sight, the world of medicine and the world of art and culture could not be more different. Medicine is, almost by definition, rather conservative—just think of the ancient adage primum non nocere (first, do no harm)—and its profession is bound by regulation and guidelines. In contrast, art and culture are characterised by creativity, imagination, and liberal thinking, with little formal supervision.

Yet we would argue that these two worlds are closely intertwined, perhaps even inseparable. As with other historical couples who seemed to be an unusual pairing at first sight but were highly successful (think of the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo), we believe that a closer collaboration between the two could improve the future of care for our patients. Here we offer some examples, drawing from our experience in neurology and beyond.

Dopamine, creativity, and Parkinson’s disease

The tight connection between art and medicine takes many forms (table 1). It’s fascinating that the neurotransmitter dopamine binds both worlds together by its diverse actions: a lack of dopamine leads to debilitating motor and psychiatric symptoms (apathy, depression, anxiety) in patients with Parkinson’s,2 whereas adequate dopamine levels are associated with creativity and art.3

View this table:
Table 1

Illustrations of interactions between the world of art and culture and the world of medicine

Dopamine’s role in creativity seems causal: when patients with Parkinson’s receive dopaminergic medicine to improve their mobility the treatment also stimulates curiosity, motivation, and even creativity in as many as 10% of patients.7 Some develop beautiful art, even if …

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