Imagine you're suffering from stress, high blood pressure, and anxiety. Fed up with feeling low and worried about your health, you head to the doctor. After listening patiently to your complaints and doing a few tests, she reaches for her pad and writes you a prescription for ... a trip to the art museum?

Such a thing might sound like a skit from a late-night comedy show, but it's actually soon to be reality in Montreal, Quartz recently reported. An innovative partnership between the local art museum there and a doctor's association is allowing physicians to literally prescribe free art to their ailing patients.

Before you shake your head at our sweet-tempered neighbors to the north, know this isn't just an initiative of a few crazy Canadians. Over in Scotland something similar is happening, only on that side of the Atlantic, doctors are ordering their patients to get out into nature.

Can paintings and trees beat pills?

Skeptics might dismiss both these programs as touchy-feely if well-intentioned wellness initiatives, but the medical professionals involved disagree, insisting there is plenty of hard science to show that fine art and time in nature can have as a profound effect on our bodies as the kind of medicine that comes in little orange bottles.

Nature, for instance, is basically a wonder drug, according to a host of studies. Time spent in the great outdoors has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol, as well as improving measures of psychological health. Hospital patients given views of nature recover faster.

And that's not even getting to the added benefits of the exercise required to leave your car and go find some unspoiled scenery to enjoy.

Perhaps that's why the Japanese have long suggested "forest bathing" as a health tonic. And also why hard-nosed Amazon executives decided to build a giant dome full of 40,000 plants as part of their Seattle offices. Both traditional wisdom and capitalist calculation come to the same conclusion -- nature makes people healthier, happier, and more productive.

And what about art? Is prescribing paintings just airy-fairy nonsense? Nope, insists Helene Boyer, vice president of the French Canadian medical association involved in the Montreal project "There's more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being," she explains to Quartz.

Given that people evolved for millions of years in nature, it's not such a stretch to understand that it might be an ideal environment for our bodies, but why would art have such powerful effects? One answer might be the feeling of awe -- a sense of our smallness compared to the vast expanse of the world and the span of human achievement. The emotion, engendered by great art among other experiences, has been shown to be a truly powerful anxiety reducer.

Or maybe it's simply that great art connects us with our fellow humans, reducing loneliness, which has reached epidemic levels and can ravage the body as much as 15 cigarettes a day (I didn't make that up -- it's from an actual study).

Whatever the exact mechanics, art and nature are clearly magical elixirs for human health. It's nice to see that at least some doctors are starting to put that truth to work.

Published on: Nov 2, 2018