Girija Kaimal, Associate Professor, Creative Arts Therapies

Investigating the healing power of art
Girija Kaimal

How can the arts contribute to better health and well-being? How might technologies such as virtual reality accelerate and improve arts-based therapy?

At Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions (CNHP), Girija Kaimal is an innovative researcher who is at the forefront of exploring these potentially life-changing possibilities. She is associate professor in the PhD program in the creative arts therapies department and president-elect of the American Art Therapy Association.

As primary investigator for the Health, Arts, Learning and Evaluation (HALE) Lab, Kaimal has long been connecting vulnerable populations around the world with the therapeutic properties of creative self-expression. One study showed that making art, at any level, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in participants. In another study, military service members created papier-mâché masks to facilitate their recovery from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders — and to provide insight into their experiences.

“A lot of research will tell you that when you’re in a traumatic experience, the part of the brain that controls speech shuts down,” Kaimal says. “So, having a nonverbal way — such as art — to communicate is key to understanding what people are going through.”

Having a nonverbal way — such as art — to communicate is key to understanding what people are going through.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, media organizations including The New York Times, NPR and Fast Company featured stories on the therapeutic potential of creating art, each citing Kaimal’s research. Her article “How Art Can Heal” was published in the July/August 2020 issue of American Scientist. Kaimal also was co-author of a study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in December, that examined the influence of a fragrance stimulus on individuals conducting virtual drawing. A digital fashion publication, The Zoe Report, interviewed her on creativity.

Art Therapy Meets the Digital Frontier

papier-mâché masks
In a study led by Girija Kaimal, a creative arts therapies faculty member, military service members created papier-mâché masks to facilitate their recovery from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.
Kaimal and the other members of her lab are exploring the next frontier of art therapy, which traditionally integrates physical materials and art-making processes such as drawing, painting, collage, coloring or sculpting to treat individuals managing a range of challenges such as trauma, everyday stress, and conditions such as dementia. Kaimal and her team, who have partly been funded by Drexel’s donor-supported Faculty Summer Research Award, are collaborating with the International Arts + Mind Lab, Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University to study how virtual reality might contribute to successful art therapy interventions.

The research conducted through the partnership will be the first systematic examination of how art therapy can be integrated into virtual-reality-based creative self-expression. The findings could help expand the potential of art therapy to enhance care for people, including those in physical rehabilitation and those facing psychological stressors and challenges such as mood disorders and chronic health conditions. Additionally, it could provide therapies to potentially help prevent conditions such as phobias and inhibitions, and interpersonal challenges such as social anxiety.

"This promising partnership brings together two institutions invested in creative approaches to promoting health and enhancing well-being across the lifespan," Kaimal says.

The virtual-reality project is the second collaboration between CNHP and Johns Hopkins. The first, the Tailored Activity Program (TAP), was developed by CNHP Dean Laura N. Gitlin while she was at Johns Hopkins’ School of Nursing. TAP is an evidence-based program that assesses the abilities and interests of people living with dementia and then instructs caregivers in their use. It is currently being deployed in various countries, including Scotland.

Breakthroughs Where Disciplines Converge

For Kaimal, who received a masterʼs degree in art therapy at Drexel before earning a doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard University, serving on the research faculty in the creative arts therapies department allows her to balance the arts and sciences.

“Coming back to this position as research faculty helps me bring those two interests together and work on understanding what is the role of art in our lives,” she says.

Kaimal’s work has been funded by a wide range of government, academic and nonprofit organizations, including the US Department of Defense, US Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and Oxfam America. She’s also forging collaborations to explore the role of arts therapy globally, including in India and Australia. She consults for Save the Children International on arts-based psychosocial support for children living in adversity and, most recently, presented a keynote address on a framework for art therapy at the inaugural International Art Therapy Practice/Research Conference in London.

Kaimal says her roles as scientist, teacher and visual artist are interconnected. “My research keeps my skeptical mind open to what the data might reveal. That feeds back into teaching, that feeds back into mentorship and that feeds back into artistic practice.”

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