Our brains on art - RSA Comment - RSA

Our brains on art

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  • Picture of Susan Magsamen
    Susan Magsamen
    Founder and Executive Director of the International Arts + Mind Lab
  • Arts and culture
  • Health and wellbeing

The growing field of neuroarts explores the profound ways in which aesthetic experiences affect our bodies and behaviours 

Science is now proving what artists have known for millennia – our brains and bodies are wired for art. Today, we stand on the verge of a cultural shift in which the arts can deliver potent and accessible proven health and wellbeing solutions to billions of people. And advances in technology have made it possible to look inside our heads and deepen our understanding of how the arts and aesthetic experiences affect us.

Such experiences hold significant importance when it comes to our mental health. Globally, nearly 1 billion people struggle with their mental health, with depression being a leading cause of disability. And a generation of adolescents and young adults is experiencing epidemic levels of mental stress. Accumulating evidence indicates that the arts are a powerful and potentially scalable way to foster youth mental health and wellbeing.

The International Arts + Mind (IAM) Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Baltimore, Md) promotes innovation at the intersection of the arts and brain science, with the mission to amplify human potential across the lifespan through multidisciplinary research-to-practice efforts. IAM engages in research, leadership in the field, community building, and outreach and education. Through these endeavours, the Lab seeks to accelerate the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, also known as neuroarts.

Simply defined, neuroarts is the study of how aesthetic experiences measurably change the body, brain and behaviour, and how the knowledge gained from our studies is translated into specific practices that advance health and wellbeing. For example, research has shown that engaging in an art project for as little as 45 minutes can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and participating in just one art experience a month can extend one’s life by 10 years.

Four core concepts underpin the neuroarts: neuroplasticity – the amazing ability of the brain to form and reorganise neuronal connections consistently and constantly, and to ‘rewire’ itself; enriched environments – surroundings that enliven our senses through colour, shape, smell, pattern, touch and sight can actually increase our brain mass (the ultimate enriched environment is nature); the aesthetic triad – a theoretical model created by scientist Anjan Chatterjee that depicts how our sensorimotor systems, our reward systems, and our knowledge and meaning-making all intersect to form aesthetic moments (moments of deep meaning in our lives); and the default mode network – that part of our brain now believed to be the neurobiological basis of the self, the quiet, daydreaming, mindwandering, meaning-making place.

Research has shown that engaging in an art project for as little as 45 minutes can reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and participating in just one art experience a month can extend one’s life by 10 years

Arts interventions have been used to support the health of marginalised youth and developmentally diverse populations and, in general, they produce a wide range of positive outcomes. Yet, here in the US, evidence regarding the effectiveness of arts- and culture-based strategies has not led to shifts in standard youth mental health interventions and practices, responsive policies, or scalable solutions. There is a critical need for the research evidence to be translated into actionable practice and policy.

To begin to address this need, we are planning a project that will involve direct input from groups of young people aged 12 to 24 from six diverse communities across the US, focus groups, and a national survey, all with the aim of determining what arts and culture engagement strategies and programmes might be most effective in enhancing and maintaining youth mental health. We hope the results of our research will create trusted, community-based arts and culture programmes that advance the lives of young people by addressing mental health symptoms, reducing stigma, building self-concept and stress resilience, and improving overall wellbeing. We also look forward to scaling the project more broadly across the US and into other countries.

To define a pathway for growing the field of neuroarts, the IAM Lab and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine & Society Program released the NeuroArts Blueprint – Advancing the Science of Arts, Health, and Wellbeing in 2021, a five-year initiative with a goal to ensure that the arts becomes part of mainstream medicine and public health. And, earlier this year, Ivy Ross (Vice President of Design for Hardware Products at Google) and I published Your Brain on Art – How the Arts Transform Us. The book is a compilation of interviews with over 100 people, including visits to labs, museums, theatres, art studios, community centres, kitchen tables and hospital rooms, illustrating how and why the arts and aesthetic experiences are imperative for our individual and collective health.

Our goal is to grow the neuroarts field into an immersive ecosystem that celebrates the highly interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of our work and provides virtual and physical spaces for all types of stakeholders, including artists, to share ideas and projects.

Susan Magsamen, FRSA is the Founder and Executive Director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics, an initiative from the Pedersen Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is also a Co-director of NeuroArts Blueprint.

New York Times Best Seller Your Brain on Art (2023) was co-authored by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal issue 4 2023.

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