A calming room painted in peach and purple tones

Image caption: Members of the International Arts + Mind Lab helped artist Suchi Reddy develop rooms like this for Google's A Space for Being exhibit.

Credit: Maremosso

Beauty and the Brain

The Johns Hopkins International Arts + Mind Lab is working to advance the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, our biological response to art, dance, music, and architecture

Every April, the world's architecture and design communities gather in Milan for the Salone del Mobile, the annual international furniture fair. Think of it as the fashion week for furniture, where the world's top designers look to entice over 380,000 participants with their latest wares and establish interior design trends for the coming months. Most exhibit spaces showcase material objects—dining room sets, garden furniture, sofas. Members of the design media snap photos and post hot takes on the latest styles, and the collective spirit is one of frenetic energy and rapid-fire conversation. This past April, however, one exhibition had no products to unveil. In fact, visitors were asked to put away their phones and observe what was inside the installation without talking. Three separate rooms had been designed with a carefully curated mix of furniture, textiles, and sensory elements—such as touchable artwork and distinct fragrances—and were meant to invite visitors to sit, touch, and spend a few quiet moments amid the chaos of the event and, let's be honest, everyday modern life. At a fair centered on the material trappings of aesthetics, here the visitor's personal experience took center stage.

A Space for Being was an exhibit conceived by Ivy Ross, vice president of hardware design at Google, in partnership with New York–based architect Suchi Reddy and the International Arts + Mind Lab at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Brain Science Institute. The exhibit marked the first occasion the emerging science of neuroaesthetics was front and center at such an influential global design event.

In the last few decades, as noninvasive brain imaging such as the fMRI has become prevalent, a new area of study in the brain sciences field has centered on the ways in which aesthetic experience—the perception of music, dance, architecture, and the visual arts—registers in our brain. British neurobiologist Semir Zeki first coined the term neuroaesthetics in 1999, and it was seen initially as a way for cognitive neuroscientists to understand how and why humans respond to the arts. In its infancy, studies focused primarily on the visual and auditory pathways—for instance, what happens in our brain's gray matter when we view the gardens of Giverny as painted by Monet or listen to a Bach sonata?

Today, as more scientists, social scientists, artists, architects, and others enter the field—as even the National Institutes of Health dedicates grant funding to its study—the scope has enlarged to examine the ways that aesthetic experiences not only register in our brain but also influence our biological and emotional responses. Why is it that one room inspires us while another makes us sleepy or anxious? Why does a particular piece of music move us to tears while another makes us hit mute? And how does our daily aesthetic experience inform our physiology?

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The value in asking those kinds of questions, says Susan Magsamen, executive director of the IAM Lab, is in our ability to leverage neuroaesthetics through evidence-based interventions that may help change our behavior, amplify our potential, and improve our health, well-being, and capacity for learning. Magsamen points to research that shows how music has the capacity to lower blood pressure, pain, and anxiety, and how the act of creating art can open brain pathways that have been damaged by trauma. Magsamen likes to say that everything is an aesthetic experience. The cities we traverse, the rooms in which we live and work, and the sounds, sights, and smells we encounter throughout our day, all impact how we feel. "Neuroaesthetics is the study of how our brain and biology change [from exposure to] the arts," Magsamen says, and she expands the definition to include not just the human-made but nature as well. "I always say nature is the mother of all arts."

Illustration of aesthetically pleasing rooms

Image credit: Thomas Hedger

Researchers at Johns Hopkins began exploring questions of neuroaesthetics more than a decade ago, even before the term was formally applied to their work. In 2008, Charles Limb, then a professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a musician who plays multiple instruments including the saxophone, famously put jazz musicians in an fMRI machine to see what happened to their brains when they improvised on the piano. "Spontaneous artistic creativity is often considered one of the most mysterious forms of creative behavior," Limb and his co-authors wrote in the study findings, and they aimed to help demystify it. The study showed that when a piano player became more creative and started to improvise, the activity in the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-monitoring went down while the activity in the prefrontal cortex area associated with self-expression increased. The players became less inhibited as a result.

Another study, by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Ed Connor, explored how certain shapes—such as the smooth curves in the work of popular modernist sculptor Jean Arp—create pleasant emotional responses. And when Johns Hopkins Hospital planned its new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center and Sheikh Zayed Tower, which opened in 2012, artists and landscape designers partnered with the architects to bring color, art, light, and herb and flower gardens into the design, marrying state-of-the-art medicine with neuroaesthetic elements meant to foster holistic care of a patient's mind, body, and spirit.

In 2008, philanthropist Marilyn Pedersen and her family made a gift to the Brain Science Institute to enable researchers at Johns Hopkins to explore the connection between aesthetics and the brain. BSi helped to fund the work of Limb, Connor, and others, and in 2010, the institute, with Magsamen's help, convened an international conference at Hopkins called The Science of the Arts.

What became clear was that those interested in this subject craved an organizing mechanism. In 2016, the IAM Lab was founded for that purpose. The goal of the lab, according to Magsamen, is to be the international hub that fosters collaboration, builds a common research language and approach, houses a centralized database for researchers and practitioners, and leads the way for evidence-based practices to be used in the real world.

The difficulty, however, is that "you can't always study the arts the way you conduct studies in medicine," Magsamen explains. The arts, being subjective, are harder to measure. In a cancer clinical trial, you might see whether a new medicine has an effect on shrinking a tumor. How do you determine, in an evidence-based way, how people feel when exposed to art? "You have to redefine how you research because it's not the same as a mouse model looking at disease states or traditional clinical trials."

IAM Lab developed what it calls Impact Thinking to address this challenge. Impact Thinking is a nine-step "scientific model where we can study art and look at research in a quantifiable way," Magsamen explains. The process is used for identifying, studying, documenting, and ultimately disseminating neuroaesthetic solutions and findings that can be easily translated and applied.

Currently, the IAM Lab has 12 Impact Thinking partnerships. In one, they are working with the Hopkins ElderPlus program to assess how personalized aesthetic activities—from drawing and dance to knitting and reading—might reduce anxiety in dementia patients. In the Sound Resonance project, a partnership with the Polytechnic University of Milan, they are studying how music informs emotional states. For this experiment, they gathered participants in a concert hall in Cremona, Italy, and outfitted them with wearable bands to measure things like heart rate and body temperature. Participants also measured their moods through a self-reported survey. "Our goal is to better understand how individuals respond to the same piece of music," Magsamen explains, and from there, they will consider how to personalize music therapy for stress reduction.

Google armband and digital display

Image caption: A Google arm band collects biometric data while the wearer tours the neuroaesthetics exhibit. The data is then displayed as a watercolor inkblot circle indicating moments of tranquility and stimulation.

Image credit: Maremosso

When Google's Ross was introduced to the IAM Lab a few years ago, she had never heard the term neuroaesthetics. After Magsamen explained it to her, Ross recalls getting "so excited," she says, at the idea that "science can finally help explain what many of us in art, architecture, and design have known intuitively: that space matters, that art matters, and that it impacts how we feel."

Ross, who was named one of Fast Company magazine's Most Creative People in Business 2019, wanted to put neuroaesthetics on display in Milan. "We've spent the last couple of decades optimizing for our rational minds, and we have not spent enough time understanding this other part of us that craves the sensorial, the beautiful," Ross says.

Ross chose Suchi Reddy, founder and principal of Reddymade architecture and design firm, as the architect for the installation. Reddy has replaced the modernist's popular mantra that "form follows function" with a more sensory-based one. "I have always said that form follows feeling," she says. "I think of architecture as embodied art. It's about holistically experiencing our world through all of our senses, and so architecture is the perfect matrix for considering neuroaesthetics."

Ross and Reddy asked Magsamen to help create an interactive series of rooms to explore the ways design impacts human biology. Magsamen rooted the exhibition in neuroaesthetic principles—how color, smell, light, materiality, and sound influence biology—and she "helped us define what the characteristics might be in every room," Reddy says.

The team decided that the primary goal would be to create a series of spaces that could put a person at ease. To quantify this effect, they gave visitors a soft wearable band with sensors, developed by Google, capable of measuring biometrics and physiology, such as heart rate.

A dining room with natural marble walls, round mirrors, and sleek furniture

Image caption: In the "Transformative" room, diffused lighting and an abundance of natural materials gave the room a calming, almost spiritual air.

Image credit: Maremosso

The rooms were each designed with specific characteristics that would offer visitors subtle but distinct differences of environment. To control for too much change that might influence the results, all three spaces were residential in theme—living or dining rooms—and all used furniture from the Scandinavian design firm Muuto. With this baseline in place, changes in light, color, smell, material—along with commissioned art—offered sensory cues meant to trigger reactions. In one room, the smell of burnt wood, known to be grounding, was prevalent. In another, it was the more vibrant scents of citrus; in the third, it was a more musky aroma. Light in one room came from bright sculptural lines, while another was warmed by a diffuse glow.

After refining prototypes of the designs at Google's Mountain View campus, they went to Milan. Visitors waited as long as three hours to enter the exhibit, where they put on the Google band and were instructed to spend five quiet minutes in each room. They could touch and engage with the art, the furniture, and the objects, but they could not talk.

Participants first entered a neutral space, a "palate cleanser" as Reddy calls it, to prepare them for the experience. Next, they entered the "Essential" room, what Reddy describes as a womblike space with soft curves and warm colors. Next came the "Vital" room, which used brighter hues, dynamic lighting, and playful colors. Finally there was the "Transformative" room, which "we wanted to feel almost spiritual without saying that word given that it might have strange connotations to some," Reddy says. "The lighting in this room was more diffuse; you didn't even see the source of it. It felt like it was just draping over the walls. The walls themselves were higher and the materials were extremely elegant. We commissioned artworks that were made out of burnt wood," Reddy says. Suchi also inserted those neutral, palate-cleanser spaces between each room to help transition people from one concept to the next.

Upon exiting, participants placed their Google band in a tray, and an algorithm read their biomarkers and offered a data visualization on a computer screen depicting their experience in each room. (This data was not stored by Google for future use; rather it was given only to the specific user to make "the invisible visible and give them a reflection of themselves as a human in relationship to their world," Reddy says.) The data was presented as a watercolor inkblot circle that mapped the person's real-time, five-minute experience in the room as if on a clock. The colors of the circle would flare when the person had more active moments based on their biofeedback, or thin when they were registering as more tranquil. Participants were given a printout of the circle with the name of the room in which their biology registered most at ease. "I believe that even the way we reflect the data should be aesthetic," Ross says. "You take in information differently, I think, when it's served up in an aesthetic way rather than looking at numbers and graphs."

Entrance of the exhibit is stark white and unadorned

Image caption: The unadorned spaces of the exhibit entry and "palate cleanser" spaces helped visitors transition from one space to the next.

Image credit: Maremosso

Magsamen positioned herself at the exit to ask people about their experience. Half told her that the algorithm identified the same room where they believed they had been most relaxed. The other half were surprised by their results: The room they thought they liked wasn't the one where their body registered as being most calm. This exhibition didn't specifically assess the reason for that discrepancy, but people acknowledged how color, smell, and texture may have been playing on their emotions more than they realized. "Most people don't connect their emotions to their surroundings," Magsamen says. "But knowing how your emotions change in a space changes everything."

The goal of A Space for Being was to begin to illuminate for people that their rational minds may not always be in sync with their bodies. This was an experience, Ross says, designed to remind people "that even though our minds might be active all the time, our bodies are active as well. They may have really liked one room, but clearly their body felt more comfortable in a different room, and that awareness is valuable. What we really wanted to do was give people a mirror to reflect back to themselves the fact that the body is always feeling, and sometimes it might even be different from what your mind is thinking," Ross says.

Visitors also received a list of the components that went into the room where their bodies felt comfortable. Still, Magsamen and Ross said, they don't mean it to be universally prescriptive. Salone del Mobile, as a product gallery and taste-making event, is, by some necessity, reductive. Participants take in the whole of the offerings and cull it for overarching trends that can be applied en masse. Ross says the neuroaesthetics approach opens up a broader spectrum of possibilities. "People think there is a winning formula to creating successful spaces. We want rules—dos and don'ts—but aesthetics is deeply personal. There is no winning formula."

Magsamen agrees: "We have to be really careful not to try to codify everything."

One of the early criticisms of studying aesthetic experience, in fact, was the belief that art, owing to its inherent subjectivity, cannot be scientifically and rigorously defined. The individual response to art is highly personal. "Aesthetics means different things to different people. My sensory information, my conditioning, my genetics are going to be different from yours," Magsamen says.

Johns Hopkins neurologist Alexander Pantelyat compares neuroaesthetics to the burgeoning field of precision medicine, where genetics and individual physiology determine care. Pantelyat has been studying the ways in which music alleviates symptoms in patients with Parkinson's disease, and in 2017 he helped co-found the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine, a partnership with the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute. Pantelyat often partners with the IAM Lab, and similarly, his program aims to research and identify the ways in which music therapy can work in tandem with traditional medicine to alleviate disease symptoms. In talking to clinicians, Pantelyat is noticing a much more open mind about the arts being integrated into traditional therapies. "I think culturally the moment is ripe for this kind of multidisciplinary collaboration between music and medicine," he says.

Pantelyat has seen how singing, drumming, and playing music can temporarily improve tremors and motor skills in Parkinson's patients, and IAM is now helping fund Pantelyat's latest research, which offers Parkinson's patients 12 weeks of guitar lessons to test whether music and rhythm-based activities might offer a nonpharmacological intervention to improve quality of life.

"With some of the illnesses that we thought we were going to solve with medicine alone—like Parkinson's—we're finding a need for partnerships between science, medicine, the arts, and technology."
Susan Magsamen

Traditionally, Magsamen says, "medicine has been very narrowly defined. It primarily is about managing symptoms or curing disease, but disease and medicine are much more complicated than that because people are much more complicated than that. With some of the illnesses that we thought we were going to solve with medicine alone—like Parkinson's—we're finding a need for partnerships between science, medicine, the arts, and technology. If you bring those threads together, you create a much stronger way to help someone address quality-of-life issues, symptom relief, maybe even a way to manage issues that are not going away, like chronic pain."

After Milan, Ross says journalists asked her whether Google planned to make a wristband that tells people how they feel. "I do not want to live in a world where we have to wear a band to tell us how we feel," Ross says. "This whole exhibit was meant to bring awareness to our feelings and remind us that we do have agency over our situation in terms of what we surround ourselves with and the spaces we live in."

Now, IAM Lab and Reddy are partnering with the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins to design care rooms that use neuroaesthetics to help children heal. While still in the early stages of development, the belief is that these multi-sensory rooms—which will be personalized for each patient and focused on those suffering from disorders of consciousness, such as coma—will help them wake up better and faster, while also supporting the well-being of their parents and caregivers.

Beyond designing rooms, Reddy believes that "the field of neuroaesthetics has far-reaching effects. It can transform the way in which we even think about how our cities are built."

After the A Space for Being exhibition, in fact, other divisions at Google reached out to Ross, including a team working on new designs for housing. "They wanted to know if I thought neuroaesthetics should inform their design, and I said absolutely! We have gotten a little flatlined as a society, always focusing on optimizing the rational. I'm hoping that our experience brings more consciousness to this field so that people understand the importance of this other side of us that is craving the sensory. We need it for our health. When our senses are alive, we feel more alive. And we thrive."

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and editor.