Decades of research by Dr. Henry S.R. Kao and his colleagues have led to strong evidence that calligraphy, an ancient art and writing form, can strengthen connections between the mind and body, often helping those who consistently practice it achieve measurable restfulness and experience deeply consequential breakthroughs through semiotics. Kao, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Hong Kong, has been a leader in this field of study for more than forty years. His work has appeared in Nature, Visual Language, and Ergonomics, and he has twice worked with Parker pen company: once from 1965-1967, and once more in 2013. Although he specializes in the study of Chinese calligraphy, he has also studied English, Japanese, and Korean calligraphy. Kao himself loves making calligraphy art, too. He has practiced Chinese calligraphy art and has collaborated with noted artist (and CODAworx member!) Shan Shan Sheng, whose Open Wall was in the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.
Calligraphers like Kao also continue to expand the field through the use and creation of characters (the symbols or “alphabet” of calligraphy) in novel ways, which defines a direction for the art’s future. Kao is the founder of the psycho-esthetic movement, which he describes as “introducing psychology into the design and conceptualization of artworks. Every piece we create has to symbolize some aspect of human behavior.” The importance of returning to a consideration of aesthetics in the modern era was also a topic we discussed, as well as the links between the forms of calligraphy characters, how written languages differ from one another, and how minds interpret these differences.
“For a long time we were enchanted with the brush, but gradually the findings became more interesting. We began daring to try calligraphy with a finger. Brush work is more difficult, and harder to do, and creates physiological advances. Using a brush began to create all these findings. After years and years of work, we finally realized it is all the same. We are going back to the most natural form of visual communication.” Kao stated.
Simply tracing characters using a brush, a finger, or a stylus on a device such as an iPad can bring nearly immediate benefits to people, such as increased memory, sensory awareness, sharpness, and reduced stress. A 2019 World Health Organization report indicates that, at the time, there were more than 500 academic papers supporting the positive effects of calligraphy. “The whole work is based on the language interfacing the brain, the body, as well as neural or cognitive changes through the motor skills of the writing act.” Kao elaborated. New research shows this mind-body connection during the practice of Chinese calligraphy actually alters how brains operate or process. This change in the brain is affected by the focus necessary to accurately recreate particular Chinese calligraphy characters, but a similar effect is known in other art forms across other mediums as well.
According to Kao, there are five core areas where calligraphy can create the most measurable impacts. These zones can be broadly defined as level of focus or alertness in sight, awakening of mental faculties, pace of physiological processes, levels of emotional calm, and consistency of behaviors. Five types of motion are activated during a calligraphy session, firing up brain activity:
The chart above lists these as hand, eye, manipulative, transport, and posture motion. In just half an hour after practicing calligraphy, the increase in brain activity is significant.
In the fall of 2011, Kao presented Existence: Light, Life, Love, an artwork he worked on, to Professor Charles K. Kao, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2009. Nobelprize.org states that Charles K. Kao (who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2018) received the award "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication."
Fittingly, the themes of the artwork symbolize what both gentleman understand as the enormity of the Nobel prizewinner’s passions and achievements – which ultimately had a revolutionary impact on society, helping the internet become a life changing tool in so many people’s lives. In addition, the concept of “love” is about the desire to help people struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. The artwork, pictured below, was presented in Hong Kong during a celebration of the first anniversary of the creation of the Charles K. Kao Foundation for Alzheimer’s Disease.
A medical achievement which has received significant attention was the result of Kao’s work with a patient who awoke from a coma after calligraphy therapy. Kao developed a simplified alphabet and two assistants helped a patient trace character strokes. After further calligraphy therapy, the patient eventually regained consciousness, showing particularly more control over his left eye.
Here is another professor’s story of recovery with the help of sustained calligraphic practice: T.S. Jao, a well-known sinologist and Chinese calligrapher, once lost significant ability in his right hand after a stroke. After half a year, Jao regained calligraphy ability in the hand with a dexterity level close to what he had pre-stroke. Jao’s first post-stroke artwork includes a calligraphic inscription above a landscape.
Other research studies by Kao throughout the years have also yielded remarkable insights about calligraphy. His research with Alzheimer’s patients provides evidence of improved cognitive functions, and a study about children who were traumatized after a major earthquake struck has shown improvements in their mental health after calligraphy art therapy. One of Kao’s goals is to share knowledge of how calligraphy may help with more people in the world.
As both an accomplished scientist and artist, Kao has rare expertise at the highest levels in fields of study that are not only fascinating, but related. In addition to his research which has garnered attention from many audiences, Kao’s artwork has been appreciated at exhibitions in Russia, Singapore, South Korea, the United States, and elsewhere. The synergy between his research and the psycho-esthetic style is an authentic connection between science and art. Kao sees a future which brings more recognition to this mode of art and healing, and new perspectives on the benefits of calligraphy.