Art and Mental-Health After the Lockdown: Interview with Dr. Melissa Meade

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr Gachet, 1890.

Understanding the adverse effects of two months of quarantine on our mental health is going to be a major topic of interest for psychologists and researchers in the coming months. As always, art experiences can provide a soothing balm in moments of crisis. While the performing arts have evolved new ways to connect with us and provide momentary respite from boredom, the contemplative bliss that is possible in the visual arts can rarely be simulated. That is why the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition is opening its doors to you this summer, while upholding the highest standards of social distancing by allocating 75 square feet per attendee

As we’ve seen recently, the physical-health requirement of social distancing and the mental-health need to socialize can be a complicated balancing act. So to give the subject the necessary amount of nuance and cautious deliberation, we are delighted to welcome Dr. Melissa Meade, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology. Dr. Meade joins us to discuss some of the psychological effects of quarantine, as well as potential DIY remedies. With a background in fine arts, Dr. Meade speaks on the therapeutic value of art experiences during periods of isolation and stress. One of the remedies she discusses is the innovative HippoCamera app, developed in her lab, that combats various psychological ailments from memory loss to stress management. While her commentary does not encourage breaking current social distancing measures, she offers insight on how various art experiences, like the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition, can uplift our spirits after this unprecedented period of isolation. 

There hasn’t been a period of collective isolation quite like this in a very long time. What would you say are some of the adverse effects that we should expect as social activity slowly resumes again? 

Dr. Melissa Meade

MM: The social isolation and broad restrictions on many activities that we are accustomed to in our daily lives has been incredibly difficult for many of us. The season is now starting to change, with beautiful weather and gradual lifting of restrictions, which is sure to draw many people out of isolation. We’re all eager to return to normalcy, but it’s important to keep in mind that we can’t expect everything to resume as it was before the pandemic. If we don’t continue to practice social distancing and sanitization procedures, we will undoubtedly see another rise in COVID-19 cases. The transition to a new ‘normal’ will likely be filled with frustration, as we collectively adjust to new social norms that will impact how we work and engage in recreational activities. It’s also likely that many will continue to feel cautious about leaving home and be concerned about the possibility of contracting or spreading COVID-19, which will prolong the stress and anxiety that is currently widespread. 

Aside from the necessary precautions related to physical health, what are some of the things people can do for their mental health during the transition out of lockdown?

MM: It’s really important to recognize how difficult and stressful it has been to respond to the major changes in daily life brought about by the pandemic. A number of researchers are concerned about increased stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression symptoms, and the need for interventions to reduce the impact of these adverse effects of the lockdown (Holmes et al., The Lancet Psych, 2020). Specifically, we know that aspects of the lockdown such as social isolation (Read et al., 2020, J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci), increased boredom, and disrupted perception of time (‘blursday’), among others, have negative impacts on well-being and mental health. 

However, there are things that we can do to enhance and maintain well-being moving forward as we continue to gradually transition out of lockdown. Our lab is currently conducting a study to examine the efficacy of an intervention to help improve well-being during periods of isolation, such as we are all experiencing now. We are testing an intervention that makes use of a smartphone application we have developed called the HippoCamera

This app mimics the function of the brain’s hippocampus to stabilize and retrieve memories, as well as encourage individuals to be cognitively and physically active. The app works by having users create video memory cues for daily events that are then replayed in a manner known to optimize learning and long-term retention. Research so far demonstrates that the HippoCamera improves memory and enhances brain activity when recalling events we have experienced. We’re now examining how Hippocamera use during the lockdown can provide immediate benefits to memory, mood, boredom, and reduce the feeling of the days all blurring together, as well as provide longer-term health benefits from reducing stress. 

Part of the intervention involves having users try to engage in one unique activity each day that they record with the HippoCamera. Some of our suggested activities involve things like learning a new craft (such as knitting), going on a picnic, or trying out a new exercise like yoga. The expectation is that our intervention will enhance emotional well-being for those in lockdown by encouraging people to try out new, enjoyable activities. Additionally, we expect that enhancing memory for these unique events will reduce the uncomfortable disorientation of time we are all experiencing due to the monotony of our days in isolation. Ultimately, our goal is to validate and share an intervention that can provide widespread health and wellness benefits to many people living in isolation for the foreseeable future, as well as help those who typically live in relative isolation due to health or mobility issues.

What therapeutic value can the arts provide at this moment of uncertainty for the general public?

MM: The arts provide a fantastic opportunity to enhance well-being at the moment. Doing something like visiting and appreciating a work of art allows one to engage in a unique event that distracts from the current stress and monotony of our lives. It’s really important to find ways to try to step outside of the stressful and anxious state many of us are in, given that chronic stress can adversely effect both mental and physical health. Additionally, unlike many other recreational activities, many forms of art can be enjoyed while adhering to safety regulations and guidelines. 

Art also has the advantage of encouraging new ways of thinking and perceiving the world, as well as stirring an emotional response. The unique experiences that result from engaging with art are so important during this time. In fact this is the exact type of activity we are examining in our Hippocamera intervention; something novel that forces you out of your typical routine. We expect that incorporating activities that are unique, fun, and novel into our daily lives will provide huge benefits for our overall well-being. The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibition sounds like a fantastic opportunity for people to leave their current state of stress and enter a different, beautiful world, even if it is only for a short period of time.

Special thanks to Dr. Melissa Meade and Dr. Morgan Barense for their time and participation in this interview.