Your Brain on Art (2023) offers remarkable insights into how artistic endeavors and aesthetics – from music and dance to drawing and interior design – can rewire our brains and improve our lives.
Introduction: Learn the many ways you can experience better living through art and design.
There’s a good chance you’re at least vaguely familiar with the field of art therapy. You might have an image in your head of troubled kids being asked to express their feelings through drawing and painting. But the proven techniques and therapeutic benefits of art go far beyond this.
Alongside a wealth of evidence from clinical trials and peer-reviewed studies, you’ll find a range of practices aimed at benefiting your overall mental health and well-being. Every moment of every day, your senses – along with your brain – are taking in and processing the world around you. And in this summary, you’ll learn how the everyday use of art has the power to rewire your brain and enrich every aspect of your life.
Our sensitivity to aesthetics
Before we get into the different therapeutic benefits that art can provide, we need to ask two important questions. The first is, What is art? And the second is, How do we process art on a physiological level?
While people have been debating the definition of art for centuries, for our purposes we’re going to cast a wide net. In fact, we’re going to take a cue from the Irish poet John O’Donohue who said, “Art is the essence of awareness.”
Now this might sound a little cryptic, but in a way, it’s kind of straightforward as well. Art is everywhere. It’s in the pattern of your rug, the shape of your potted plants, and the design of your furniture.
Magsamen and Ross have a term for this awareness, it’s called having an aesthetic mindset. If you already have a strong aesthetic mindset, you might be the kind of person who frequents art galleries, is often moved by music, and is cognizant of a room’s interior design.
But whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re constantly being affected by aesthetics. The color of the walls, the lighting, and the soundscape of the room you’re sitting in right now are all having an effect on you. Having an aesthetic mindset simply means that you have an awareness of this relationship and are ready to take advantage of it.
This brings us to the second question of the physiological effect art has on us. As human beings, we’re constantly processing our surroundings through our senses. What we see, what we hear, what we smell, the temperature and texture of the things we touch – these are the aesthetics of our surroundings, and they’re being taken in and processed on a moment-by-moment basis.
All of it has the potential to change how you’re feeling. Smells, sounds, and colors can cause your blood pressure to increase or decrease. They can prompt the release of stress hormones. Or they can make you feel calm, secure, and sleepy.
Most of this is happening on a subconscious level. Neuroscience tells us that only 5 percent of your mental activity is conscious. The rest is happening without you even thinking about it. Your senses are being processed and your emotions are occurring subconsciously. But by increasing your awareness – or your aesthetic mindset – you can take all of this into account and begin using art to make lasting changes to your life and well-being.
Treating stress, anxiety, and trauma
There’s a chance you might have a conflicted relationship with art. Maybe someone told you at a young age that you didn’t show a natural talent for art, and ever since then you simply believed that art was for other people.
If there’s only one thing you take away from this summary, let it be the understanding that you don’t have to be an artistic genius to reap the rewards of art. Creating something with your hands, whether it’s a pencil-and-paper drawing or a small clay sculpture, is its own reward. A study at Drexel University found that people can lower their levels of the stress hormone cortisol by spending just 45 minutes making art. They also pointed out that it didn’t matter how artistically skilled or adept they were. Making art is calming at a physiological level.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There have been thousands of studies in the past few decades relating to art therapy. The results show that making art in a judgment-free environment can also improve your immune functions, your cardiovascular reactivity, and your psychological state.
In fact, you don’t even need to make art to experience some benefit from it. A 2020 study at University College London found that those who attend cultural events at least once a year were found to have lower mental distress and improved quality of life – no matter their socioeconomic level.
Even though it’s believed that humans can experience over 30,000 distinct emotions, we also have the tendency to get emotionally stuck in certain singular emotional grooves. This can be debilitating, especially if the emotions cause anxiety, stress, or depression. Art has the distinct power of changing how we feel because our sensory perception is part of a complex, interconnected neural pathway.
Think about the last time you suddenly heard a song that you hadn’t heard since you were in high school. Just a few seconds of that song can conjure up all kinds of emotions. It can transport you back to a very specific time and place.
Smells and tastes also have a strong power. A certain perfume or the taste of a specific food can conjure up a seemingly forgotten childhood memory in vivid detail. In this way, sound therapy is sometimes used in conjunction with talk therapy due to the proven benefits it has in reducing stress.
This is an invaluable power. When you’ve spent so long in an emotional rut that you’re experiencing burnout, an image, a sound, a smell, can help you snap out of it and experience a moment of transcendent peace.
In a lot of cases, art has the unique ability to redirect your thoughts elsewhere. One technique has been so effective it dates back to ancient civilizations. For Tibetans, the mandala is a circular pattern that contains colorful, sacred geometry within that’s used to supplement meditative practices. In the twentieth century, Carl Jung found that when people filled in the geometry within the mandala, it helped them navigate their own complex emotional lives and arrive at the unifying issue at the center.
More recent studies have confirmed Jung’s theories. Research published in the Art Therapy journal showed significantly lower levels of anxiety in patients who worked with mandalas, compared to those who performed free drawing on a blank piece of paper. The researchers believed the mandala required just enough focus and complexity to soothe and redirect a patient’s thoughts away from anxious thoughts. This “switching-off” effect that art can provide has proven to be invaluable when it comes to improving mental health.
The creation of art has been linked to the production of serotonin and endorphins, which are in turn linked to a happier, more emotionally open state of mind. This openness is needed when dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder as PTSD is essentially a long-term condition wherein a traumatic event is stuck in our body and mind. It could be a harrowing, violent event, or a painful break-up with a friend. Either way, you haven’t been able to process the natural emotional response. It’s gotten stuck and, under the right circumstances, it can come to the surface once again and trigger your stress hormones and nervous system into overdrive.
Fortunately, there’s been a wealth of research in recent years exploring how a variety of art practices can help alleviate PTSD and toxic stress. Drama therapy, dance therapy, painting, sculpting – all of these are techniques that can allow someone to explore and express their inner feelings – which is a key step in alleviating PTSD. For example, drama therapy allows the individual an opportunity to step outside themselves and to increase their own sense of empathy by portraying other people. And one peer-reviewed study showed that programs that involved drawing resulted in an over 80 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms.
In the next section, we’ll move away from stress and anxiety and take a closer look at other physically therapeutic benefits that art can provide.
Treating pain and promoting physical well-being
We’ve already talked about some of the things that happen in your body during sensory experiences, but it’s important to recognize that this process isn’t just mental – it’s physical as well. The structure and functions of your cells are also changed – making your response to art both physiological and biological.
Take neuroplasticity, for instance. This is the ability your brain has to rewire neural networks and change the way it functions. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but it does happen when you change your environment or make new habits, like introducing a new art practice into your daily routine. This helps to explain why a growing number of people are receiving a prescription for art, as both a healing measure and as a preventative measure.
Many hospitals are catching on to the benefits of the aesthetic mindset as well. When designing rehabilitation settings, many hospitals take into consideration the color of paint and other interior design elements. Aromatherapy is being used to help treat nausea, and video games are now a common tool in the treatment of patients recovering from a stroke. In general, it’s not uncommon to see art practitioners working with clinical staff in developing care plans at hospitals.
There’s even a term now – palliative aesthetics – which is all about pain management techniques that take art and aesthetics into consideration. BJ Miller is an internal medicine doctor who lost both of his legs and one arm in a terrible accident many years ago. He knows that chronic pain can also be accompanied by a number of other symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, depression, and insomnia. Miller has found art and aesthetics, including music therapy, to be valuable tools in improving mood and managing all of these symptoms on a long-term basis.
He asks his patients to develop an aesthetic mindset by being aware of the moments during the day when they’re feeling better and try to ask themselves, What’s making the difference? What’s the environment like? Is there a sound, a smell, a texture, a color? Take a picture with your phone so you won’t forget.
Music and dance therapy are also being used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to physical issues including shaking, imbalance, and reduced coordination. Only recently has science gotten closer to fully understanding the effect that dance has on the human brain. A three-year study published in 2021 found that dance not only improved the mood and quality of life in patients with Parkinson’s, but it increased the blood flow to the basal ganglia, the region of the brain responsible for coordination and smooth muscle control. In doing so, dance therapy reduced the symptoms of the disease and improved several motor control functions like walking and facial expressions.
In the final section, we’ll wrap things up by taking a quick look at some of the more general rewards of art that anyone can benefit from.
Learning to flourish with art
The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once told a class of high school students the secret to a successful life. It didn’t have anything to do with ambition or determination. He told them to practice art, any kind of art. Poetry, music, painting, sculpting, it didn’t matter. It’s not about fame or money. It’s about creating something that’ll help you to understand yourself and “make your soul grow.”
Many of us were raised in an education system that prioritized memorization and standardized testing. But more and more, researchers are understanding that playful artistic experimentation can result in healthier, more flourishing minds.
With all of this in mind, Magsamen and Ross have identified several ways in which art and the aesthetic mindset can promote a flourishing life. They include cultivating curiosity, creating enriched environments, and balancing ritualized practice with regular moments of new and surprising experiences.
As psychologist Todd Kashdan put it, a rich and meaningful life is about choosing to be curious and exploring the unknown rather than avoiding it. Engaging with art, with curiosity and without judgment, is a perfect way of deepening your empathy, as well as learning to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, which are unavoidable aspects of life that can give some of us anxiety.
So, let’s see if we can wrap this up in a sort of day-in-the-aesthetic-life fashion.
You wake up and head to the kitchen which is lit by blue-white bulbs that simulate the sunlight and activate your circadian rhythms. You take a moment to enjoy the tastes and smells of your favorite coffee or tea. You have a daily art practice that’s as important as your daily exercise and meditation routines. You work on the art without expectations or judgment, it’s about bonding with yourself and supporting your own well-being. It might be a half-hour of doodling or, on the weekends, a few hours working on a sculpture.
Afterward, you take time to be in nature and enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and rhythms of the natural world. You appreciate the intricate designs and wonder that nature provides and carry its inspiration with you into the workplace. You also carry the value of communication, collaboration, and creative problem-solving into the workplace and prioritize these things over sheer efficiency and productivity.
After work, you seek out communal artistic experiences with your friends, like live music or a theater performance. You value your social circle, the exchange of ideas, and being able to gain empathy and new perspectives in your worldview.
Sounds like a pretty fulfilling day, doesn’t it? Of course, every day can’t be this perfect, but it can be what you strive for. You can aim to create an aesthetic environment that supports your well-being and helps you to continue learning, growing, and living a successful life.
By cultivating an aesthetic mindset you can reap the many benefits that art has to offer. An aesthetic mindset takes into account the fact that you’re constantly interacting with your environment and processing sensory experiences. Countless studies show that art – whether it’s sound, colors, drawing, painting, dancing, or sculpting – can reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and trauma, while also prolonging life and improving your general well-being. By creating a more aesthetic environment and building a more art-centric day-to-day life, you can live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
About the author
Susan Magsamen is the founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she is a faculty member. She is also the co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint. Susan works with both the public and private sectors using arts and culture evidence-based approaches in areas including health, child development, education, workforce innovation, rehabilitation, and social equity.
Ivy Ross is the Vice President of Design for hardware product area at Google, where she leads a team that has won over 225 design awards. She is a National Endowment for Arts grant recipient and was ninth on Fast Company’s list of the one hundred Most Creative People in Business in 2019. Ross believes that the intersection of arts and sciences is where the most engaging and creative ideas are found.
Psychology, Science, Creativity, Nonfiction, Health, Self Help, Medicine, Mental Health, Brain, Neuroscience, Medicine and Nursing, Basic Sciences, Technology, Biology, Life Sciences, Pop Culture in Graphic Design, Arts and Photography
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Language of Humanity
An Aesthetic Mindset
1 The Anatomy of the Arts
2 Cultivating Well-Being
3 Restoring Mental Health
4 Healing the Body
5 Amplifying Learning
7 Creating Community
Conclusion: The Art of the Future
About the Type
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A life-altering journey through the science of neuroaesthetics, which offers proof for how our brains and bodies transform when we participate in the arts—and how this knowledge can improve our health, enable us to flourish, and build stronger communities.
Many of us think of the arts as entertainment—a luxury of some kind. In Your Brain on Art, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross show how activities from painting and dancing to expressive writing, architecture, and more are essential to our lives.
We’re on the verge of a cultural shift in which the arts can deliver potent, accessible, and proven solutions for the well-being of everyone. Magsamen and Ross offer compelling research that shows how engaging in an art project for as little as forty-five minutes reduces the stress hormone cortisol, no matter your skill level, and just one art experience per month can extend your life by ten years. They expand our understanding of how playing music builds cognitive skills and enhances learning; the vibrations of a tuning fork create sound waves to counteract stress; virtual reality can provide cutting-edge therapeutic benefit; and interactive exhibits dissolve the boundaries between art and viewers, engaging all of our senses and strengthening memory. Doctors have even been prescribing museum visits to address loneliness, dementia, and many other physical and mental health concerns.
Your Brain on Art is a portal into this new understanding about how the arts and aesthetics can help us transform traditional medicine, build healthier communities, and mend an aching planet.
Featuring conversations with artists such as David Byrne, Renée Fleming, and evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson, Your Brain On Art is an authoritative guide to neuroaesthetics. The book weaves a tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers, and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to enhance their lives.
“This book blew my mind! An authoritative yet practical guide to neuroarts—a term that, if you haven’t heard it before, is even more reason to join these brilliant coauthors on a romp through the latest science on how art transforms the brain and the body.”—Angela Duckworth, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Grit
“Your Brain on Art will change how you think about the creative world, both around you and within you.”—Charles Duhigg, author of the bestsellers The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
“This wonderful book demonstrates that art is essential for health, healing, community, and bliss. Your Brain on Art is well researched and well written. I couldn’t put it down.”—Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North and A Life in Light
“Your Brain on Art explores the new science of neuroaesthetics, a way of reimagining how to live that includes art as an essential part of the human experience and an unexpected doorway to healing.”—Mark Hyman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Young Forever
“A groundbreaking book on the science behind humanity, joy, and creativity. ‘Art’ is the word we use for the magic that makes us better.”—Seth Godin, New York Times bestselling author of This Is Marketing
“In this wonderful new book, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross show us how the experience of art helps to build connections and pathways for mental health.”—Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and author of Healing
“Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, through extensive interviews and research, have created something beautiful and affirming with their book. Its pages provide proof for what so many of us have always known, that art, especially art in community, is transformative beyond measure.”—David Byrne, founding member of The Talking Heads and author of How Music Works
“For anyone who has been transfixed by a painting, or moved to tears by a piece of music, this book provides a fascinating tour of what goes on in the brain when we encounter art’s transformative power.”—Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
“Art is often dismissed as a nice-to-have, but this important book shows that it is an absolute necessity for a life well-lived. Everyone should read this book. In it, you’ll learn how to reclaim your creativity, heal your body, soothe your spirit, and transform your community.”—Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful and founder of The Aesthetics of Joy
“This mind-bending book can help shape richer lives and a newer world. It’s the best description yet of the indivisibility of art, the natural world, and our neurological health.”—Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods
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The Anatomy of the Arts
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. —Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer
We made a bold assertion in the Introduction. We told you that arts and aesthetic experiences will improve your health and well-being and enhance your ability to learn and flourish.
So let’s lay the groundwork for why that’s true.
We’re going to start by showing you some foundational science and offering a quick tour through your body to illuminate the ways in which you are wired for the arts. By first showing you what is going on inside of you, you’ll better appreciate all that follows in the book, which is how the arts and aesthetics affect your body and mind. You can think of this chapter as your arts anatomy cheat sheet.
Knowing how your senses work is key to understanding the transformative nature of the arts and aesthetics in your life. If you took the aesthetic mindset survey prior to this chapter, you have a better idea of how you experience the arts and the extent to which you tune in to your aesthetic surroundings. Let’s expand on that with an exercise to connect you to the sensory experiences you are having right now.
To begin, get comfortable where you are. Breathe in through your nose. What do you smell? Close your eyes and concentrate on this one sense. Maybe there’s a cup of your morning coffee, a glass of red wine, or a candle nearby with a familiar scent. Keep breathing. What do you notice next, beyond those first impressions? If you were trained as a sommelier or a perfumer, you would know those initial smells are the top notes, and you would identify numerous others that exist just below them. Perhaps there’s a musty odor from a dusty bookshelf, or the distinctive smell of petrichor through an open window, that incredible earthy scent that comes when a rain drenches a dry landscape.
Smell is one of the oldest senses in terms of human evolution. Your nose can detect 1 trillion odors with over 400 types of scent receptors whose cells are renewed every thirty to sixty days. In fact, your sense of smell is so good that you can identify some scents better than a dog can.
Microscopic molecules released by substances around you stimulate your scent receptors. They enter your nose and dissolve in mucus within a membrane called the olfactory epithelium, located a few inches up the nasal cavity from the nostrils. From here, neurons, or nerve cells, which are the fundamental components of your brain and nervous system, send axons, which are long nerve fibers, to the main olfactory bulb. Once there, they connect with cells that detect distinct features of the scent.
Here’s where it gets interesting: the olfactory cortex is located in the temporal lobe of your brain, which broadly affects emotions and memory. This is why smell instantaneously and potently triggers physical and mental responses in you. For instance, the scent of a newborn baby releases the neuropeptide oxytocin, which activates bonding, empathy, and trust, appropriately earning oxytocin the nickname “the love drug.” A single sniff of a certain perfume or cologne can bring you back to a long-forgotten relationship. Several chemicals released when grass gets cut stimulate the amygdala and the hippocampus, helping to reduce stress by lowering cortisol. That’s all because of the olfactory cortex–temporal lobe connection.
Like scent, taste is also a chemical sense: The foods you eat trigger your 10,000-plus taste buds, generating electrical signals that travel from your mouth to an area of the brain called the gustatory cortex. This part of the brain is also believed to process visceral and emotional experiences, which helps to explain how it is that taste is among the most effective sensations for encoding memory. It’s why nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon taste like the fall and winter holidays for those living in America and Europe, while the herbaceous and citrusy marigold flower tastes like celebration in India, where the edible blooms are routinely part of wedding ceremonies. It explains why Susan makes her grandmother’s chicken-and-dumpling recipe when she wants to feel comforted and why Ivy’s go-to is moist chocolate cake inspired by the homemade rich, gooey pudding her grandmother made every Sunday growing up.
Keeping your eyes closed, refocus your attention to your ears. The hum of electrical equipment, the whirl of a fan in a laptop, the sound of chattering birds. Traffic. What’s happening nearby? What can you hear in the distance? Hearing is a complex system that includes brain processes, sensory systems, and sound waves.
Maybe you’re listening to music as you read this chapter. Music and sound are the most researched art form in neuroaesthetics, and we’ll show you some compelling findings throughout the book. Our ability to hear is intricate and precise. Sound from the outside world moves into the ear canal, causing the eardrum to vibrate. These sound waves travel through the ossicles to the cochlea and cause the fluid in the cochlea to move like ocean waves. There are thousands of small hair cells inside of the cochlea, and when the fluid moves, these cells are activated, sending messages to the auditory nerve, which then sends messages to the brain. The auditory cortex, also located in the temporal lobe, sits behind your ears, where memory and perception also occur.
Different tempos, languages, and sound levels affect your emotions, mental activities, and physical reactions. Researchers at Stanford University in California used electroencephalography (EEG) machines to measure brain-wave activity of those listening to music at 60 beats per minute and they saw that alpha waves in the brain synchronized to the beats. The alpha brain wave is associated with relaxation. A slower beat can synchronize the delta brain wave and aid in falling asleep.
And the auditory nerve works both ways: It can signal your ear to dampen outside noise and focus on what the brain perceives as an important sound, which explains why it’s so easy to accidentally startle someone who is absorbed in reading a book or looking at a piece of art. They literally didn’t hear you coming.
We tend to think of sound as overt and recognizable things: a favorite song, the timbre of a lover’s voice, the honk of a car horn. What you’ll learn in this book is that your brain chemically reacts to frequency, vibration, and tone as well, and that these chemical triggers can dramatically alter mood, perception, and even address neurological and emotional ailments.
OK, open your eyes. You are now being flooded by light, color, and the objects in your visual field. For those who have visual impairment, it’s estimated that over 80 percent can differentiate between light and dark, even if you are not able to recognize colors, faces, or shapes.
Our ability to see requires us to process light through a complex system. Your eyes work similarly to a camera. What you see is converted into electrical signals by photoreceptors. The optic nerve then sends these signals to the occipital lobe in the back of the brain and converts them into what you see. It’s here that we perceive, recognize, and appreciate objects, and neuroscientists are discovering that it is one part of this lobe—the lateral occipital area—that contributes to how we process and create aesthetic appreciation of art.
Let’s finish your sensory journey by touching a few things in your surroundings. The nubby fabric of your chair, the smooth surface of a table. Or if you are outside, perhaps the cool bark of a tree or the granular warmth of beach sand. Your fingers, hands, toes, feet, and skin are extraordinarily sensitive, picking up minute cues that trigger physiological and psychological responses. In each of your feet, you have more than 700,000 nerve endings that are constantly taking in physical sensation. Touch receptors in your skin connect to neurons in the spinal cord by way of sensory nerves that reach the thalamus in the middle of the head on top of the brain stem.
Information about touch and texture is then transmitted to the somatosensory cortex, located in the parietal lobe. The somatosensory cortex is critical to processing touch. Neurons that process touch in the brain react differently to diverse features communicated by receptors. Consider how many adjectives we use to describe texture—rough, soft, furry, velvety—and what a rich sensory experience touch is.
Touch is one of the more powerful cognitive communication vehicles. It was one of our first sensory systems to evolve. We share our feelings and emotions through the simple act of holding a hand or sharing a hug. Touch rapidly changes our neurobiology and mental states of mind by releasing the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which, in addition to being the love hormone as we mentioned earlier, is also attributed to feelings of trust, generosity, compassion, and lowered anxiety. Experiments with human touch have shown how the intention of one person—to express sadness or happiness, care or excitement—can be interpreted and mirrored by another person through sense receptors. We can, quite literally, “speak” to one another through touch, because of the way it registers emotional perception in the brain.