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The artful mind

In their new book, authors Susan Magsamen, founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, and Ivy Ross contend that making and experiencing art can help us flourish

When Susan Magsamen made the decision to end her first marriage, she faced emotional and difficult days working through not only her own feelings but those of her young sons. It took a lump of one child's clay to change all that. As she relates in her new book, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us (Random House, 2023), she "spontaneously began to sculpt. What emerged was a statue of a woman on her knees, her arms raised with hands reaching for the sky and her head leaning back, sobbing in utter speechless despair." Soon, she writes, she herself was in tears.

Ivy Ross and Susan Magsamen

Image caption: Ivy Ross and Susan Magsamen

We might recognize this action as an example of using our creativity to express and release pent-up emotions. But as Magsamen, the founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins Medicine's Pedersen Brain Science Institute, and her co-author, Ivy Ross, vice president of design for hardware product at Google, show repeatedly, it was much more than that. It turns out that rhythmic, repetitive movements with the hands release serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin in the brain and alter brain wave activity, all of which contribute to a calmer, more reflective state.

Magsamen and Ross have both enjoyed long careers in educational and childhood development. With their book, Magsamen says they "wanted to try to start a conversation about the importance of arts to our health and well-being and to explore how the science of neuroaesthetics is proving this. Whether or not we know it, aesthetics impacts every aspect of our lives." In short, the book lays out a case for cultivating an aesthetic mindset—defined here as being curious, playful, sensorily aware, and driven to make or behold art—that will help us feel better, learn quicker, and live life more fully.

The authors begin their exploration of this nascent field and its potential by walking us through the science of the five senses. Take smell, for instance. After the molecules released by a substance tickle your nose's receptors, they travel to the neurons that line the nasal cavity and connect to the brain's olfactory cortex, a section associated with emotions, memory, and, well, good vibes.

Specific scents result in specific triggers. Freshly cut grass, for example, releases chemicals that stimulate our amygdala and the hippocampus, helping reduce stress by lowering cortisol. New baby smell activates oxytocin, nicknamed the love drug for its ability to trigger bonding, empathy, and trust.

The power of making or beholding art, the authors argue, can be similarly palatable. And, as Magsamen and Ross demonstrate through a variety of research and case studies, the transformational qualities of color (blue and green can reduce anxiety), biophilia (the power of connecting with nature and fellow humans), poetry, and other artistic expressions extend far beyond enhancing well-being to restoring mental health, healing the body, amplifying learning, and fostering community and an overall flourishing.

According to Magsamen, the two authors conducted virtual interviews with more than 100 people from their respective circles. Some of the book's most moving examples center on boosting the mind-body connection through sound, vibration, and dance to help those dealing with trauma, mental illness, and neurodegenerative diseases. In one case, we encounter therapists who are using dance to get Parkinson's patients back on their feet and music to activate memories in dementia patients. In both cases, rhythm and movement marshal multiple areas of the brain, the authors explain, so if one pathway—coordination or language, say—is cut off, others are ignited by the release of dopamine (the loss of which inhibits movement) and oxytocin (which can counteract depression and anxiety).

There's also evidence that exposure to the arts can aid in disease prevention and pain management, encourage childhood development (leading to better health outcomes and fewer behavioral problems), and literally help us live longer. It's no wonder the authors say they originally contemplated calling their book Twenty Minutes on Art. "In that short period of time," Magsamen says, "you can really change your neurobiology, just by making or experiencing art. We really wanted to emphasize the idea of art as a beneficial practice, just like good nutrition or exercise."

And so while the bulk of the book they ultimately produced is devoted to the compelling science behind neuroaesthetics, it's complemented by practical guidance. From a quiz aimed at determining how tuned in you are to the arts and your environment, to a call to incorporate simple "acts of art"—doodling or humming or free writing—into your life, Your Brain on Art provides ample inspiration for tapping into and benefiting from the world's beauty.