Ok folks…look above and you will see that there are two new tabs on the main menu of Glittering Shards.
Firstly, “Art & the Brain” will be the place where my evolving research on the connection between art/making with your hands and neuroscience will sit (see more below). Secondly, the “Online Resources“ will, over the next few months, have a growing number of tools to help you engage with both mosaic making (for the love of it!) and art practices as a tool for mindfulness. Bear with me as I develop tools for this page and if you have any thoughts or ideas for online resources (for both mosaic making and mindfulness practices using mosaic / art) I will be very happy to hear from you.
Below is a bit of my journey discovering the connections between art, mosaics, mindfulness and neuroscience which I have pasted from the new page on the main menu. If you get to the end of this blog post (I hope you do!) there is a voucher for an e-course waiting for you…
Art, mosaics and the brain…my journey
One of the key threads of the journey I have made with Glittering Shards is the discovery that mosaic making can be a form of meditation or mindfulness practice.
I have discovered that my experience of the calming, therapeutic and transformative effects of mosaic is not just my own. I have lost count of how many times, since 2008, students have sat in my mosaic studio, picked up mosaic materials for the first time, started to cut, move, place and stick and literally exhaled the words, “This is so therapeutic…”
The other interesting thread from my last 6 years as a mosaic teacher is that around 70% of students attending my evening classes were, quite by chance, people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, psychiatrists, mental health workers, family therapists, prison workers, teachers, OT’s. I am now so used to this that I just smile quietly and expectantly when people talk about what they do. There is clearly something going on in this pattern – perhaps the need to seek out calming, creative and restorative practices for workers in these stressful roles? The stories that emerge from my students as the course progresses are of my studio being seen as “a creative, peaceful refuge in my week“, “a little oasis of calm” and “my weekly therapy“.
Certainly, the many evening classes and large group workshops I have run in the last 6 years, alongside some of the larger scale community mosaic projects I have co-ordinated, with groups such as refugees, children in care, children with special needs and ‘at risk’ families, attest to the fact that something in particular happens to our stress levels – to our brains – when we engage our hands, our attention and our efforts in a making something solid and creative.
This possibility of harnessing our own capacity for brain change to positive effect, through ‘making with our hands‘ is now the focus of my mosaic practice and academic enquiry. The technical field I am exploring- neuroplasticity – is something I came across over 10 years ago during my work running support groups and creative programmes for abuse survivors. Since then, understanding the physiological impact of how trauma and stress shapes the brain and our ‘anxiety’ systems has been a focus of my learning and one which directly informed my work as an advocate of children in care and secure units (eg. the re-traumatisation of children sitting in LAC reviews with their abusers) and as the Head of Learning & Development in a national charity where I wrote and delivered training programmes on topics such as safeguarding children, effective advocacy & mental health. For 10 years, I helped to run survivor support groups and a creative programme (using dance, writing, mosaic, visual and textile art) both through residential weekends and at the annual Greenbelt Arts festival where I delivered seminars to hundreds of people addressing issues such as self-harm, domestic violence and how to support people who have experienced abuse and violence. All this was underpinned by a growing understanding that the damage of such experiences is not irreversible: brain change – neuroplasticity – is possible.
Seven years ago, I took a step back from social work and support work with abuse survivors to raise my young family and focus on my mosaic art. In this time, Glittering Shards – both teaching, commissions and large community art projects- grew and grew allowing me to observe directly the link between my previous learning and the power of creative making. Much of the anecdotal evidence of “mosaic as transformative, mindful practice” which I observed (and experienced) in this period I also found repeated in mosaic books, seminars and mosaic forums. There is clearly something going on when we pick up those tile nippers!
Through delving into my own creativity (in particular the mosaic form) and then discovering mindfulness practice, I feel as though many seemingly disparate threads are coming together. It goes something like this:
- Life experiences (especially very early ones) shape our brains (such as our ability to manage stress, anxiety and feelings). This can be both positive (with huge implications on areas such as positive parenting education and managing workplace stress) and negative (eg. early attachment failures, the trauma of war, abuse, disaster etc…)
- For those with negative experiences, the damaging effect on our brains can deeply affect well being and daily life (and the lives of loved ones) and can flip into disabling mental ill-health
- Understanding the physiological mechanisms by which anxiety, stress, trauma and violence affect us as humans can be liberating. Rather than feeling ‘I am not normal‘, we can reframe our responses as ‘I am having a normal brain response (eg. post traumatic stress, anxiety disorder, dissociation…) to abnormal situations (eg. violence / trauma)‘.
- Our brains do not have to remain permanently hard-wired or fixed in these damaging pathways that have been created – they are plastic and changeable.
- The mechanisms for neuroplasticity (brain change) are slowly being understood by the rapidly evolving neuroscience community which is revealing that ancient contemplative and meditative practices can play a significant part in this change.
- Understanding the mechanisms in which seemingly intractable patterns of anxiety, disorder and negative emotional states can be changed is both deeply empowering to individuals and of interest to social policy with respect to areas such as health care.
- Many tools for brain change are at our own disposal (called self-directed neuroplasticity).
- Some of the tools lie in our use of focussed attention – ‘We can use our minds to change our brains’ (Rick Hanson, London Insight Seminar, Summer 2014).
- …and I believe that some of the tools are in our hands – literally – through the use of tangible creative mediums, such as mosaics.
Certainly, the last few years has shown me that the link between mosaic/making with your hands, mindfulness and neuroplasticity is a subject worthy of further investigation, which is the focus of my own research. I will be posting more about this in the weeks and months to come. I have created a special email list for those of you who want to keep informed of my research and who may be interested in participating. Sign up here. I would love to hear your stories and experiences of the connection between art/mosaics and the brain – either by commenting on this post or you can email me .
PS. If you are interesting in learning more, I will be posting reading lists under the “Art & the Brain” tab in my main menu. In the meantime, check out the Foundations of Well Being course (which I am enrolled on) being run by Rick Hanson (a pioneer in the science of mindfulness) and if you want to enrol too, you can get $25 off by quoting FWBGIFT at the checkout.