How the Arts transform our Brains, Bodies, and Minds

One of my favorite say­ings comes from David Thore­au: “My life has been the poem I would have writ / But I could not both live and utter it.” It speaks to the way that life and art are inter­twined, and how we gain so much from liv­ing life with a sense of beau­ty and aes­thet­ics in mind.

There are many ways art infus­es my own life—from singing and play­ing gui­tar to read­ing nov­els and attend­ing plays, which all help to improve my mood and enhance my sense of won­der with the world. Prob­a­bly, neu­roaes­thet­ics many of you feel the same way. Some of you may have felt you’ve even been saved by art.

Now, a new book, Your Brain on Art, by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, helps explain why that might be the case. By focus­ing in on the sci­ence of “”—how our brains respond to aes­thet­ic and artis­tic experiences—the authors make the case that art is good for our phys­i­cal and men­tal health, and that we should all incor­po­rate more of it into our lives.

What art does for our brains and bodies:

It may seem a mys­tery that we make or enjoy art at all. But art has been part of every cul­ture on the plan­et, for tens of thou­sands of years. This means art is cen­tral to our sur­vival some­how, per­haps help­ing us to make new intu­itive leaps and inno­vate and to help bind us to one another.

As the authors explain, appre­ci­at­ing or mak­ing art involves using many parts of our brain—from those that process our sens­es to those involved in emo­tion, mem­o­ry, and cog­ni­tion. We are drawn to expe­ri­enc­ing art, because doing so lights up the plea­sure cen­ters of our brains, cre­at­ing a warm feel­ing that encour­ages us to want more of the same—much the way our brains respond to ful­fill­ing basic needs, like food and sex.

When you expe­ri­ence vir­tu­al real­i­ty, read poet­ry or fic­tion, see a film or lis­ten to a piece of music, or move your body to dance, to name a few of the many arts, you are bio­log­i­cal­ly changed,” write Magsamen and Ross. “There is a neu­ro­chem­i­cal exchange that can lead to what Aris­to­tle called cathar­sis, or a release of emo­tion that leaves you feel­ing more con­nect­ed to your­self and others.”

There is ample evi­dence that engag­ing in the arts improves well-being. For exam­ple, one study involv­ing more than 23,000 British par­tic­i­pants found that those who either made art at least once a week or attend­ed cul­tur­al events at least once or twice a year were hap­pi­er and had bet­ter men­tal health than those who didn’t. This was inde­pen­dent of their age, mar­i­tal sta­tus, income, health behav­iors, social sup­port, and more.

Though it’s hard to know in large sur­vey stud­ies whether art makes peo­ple hap­pi­er or hap­pi­er peo­ple are more like­ly to make art (or respond to it), at least one study points toward the for­mer. A lon­gi­tu­di­nal study in Japan also showed that peo­ple who engaged in artis­tic activ­i­ties, like crafts or paint­ing, at one point in time had less cog­ni­tive impair­ment lat­er than those who didn’t, which again sup­ports a direct effect of art on well-being.

These kinds of stud­ies make a case for mak­ing art a reg­u­lar part of our lives, say the authors.

Like exer­cise and good nutri­tion, the arts on a rou­tine basis will sup­port your health,” they write.

How art can heal us:

Not only can art improve gen­er­al well-being, it can also be used to pre­vent or heal us from phys­i­cal and men­tal ill­ness. Art ther­a­py is a grow­ing field, use­ful for many ail­ments and sit­u­a­tions, includ­ing when ther­a­pists work with peo­ple who may have dif­fi­cul­ties com­mu­ni­cat­ing direct­ly about their inner expe­ri­ence, like chil­dren suf­fer­ing from trau­ma or peo­ple with autism.“The arts are being used in at least six dis­tinct ways to heal the body: as pre­ven­ta­tive med­i­cine; as symp­tom relief for every­day health issues; as treat­ment or inter­ven­tion for ill­ness, devel­op­men­tal issues, and acci­dents; as psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port; as a tool for suc­cess­ful­ly liv­ing with chron­ic issues; and at the end of life to pro­vide solace and mean­ing,” the authors write.

Prob­a­bly, the most robust research on art and heal­ing has been done with music. Lis­ten­ing to music or play­ing or singing music has been tied to things like reduced stress and pain and a bet­ter immune func­tion. Singing has also been shown to help women over­come post­par­tum depres­sion more quick­ly, while lis­ten­ing to music can reduce symp­toms in peo­ple suf­fer­ing from migraines. A 2020 Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts report that reviewed 116 stud­ies on music ther­a­py for opi­oid users found that lis­ten­ing to music helped soothe their pain, reduce their need for med­ica­tion, and encour­age them to seek treat­ment for addiction.

Music is not the only art that heals. One study found that col­or­ing and draw­ing reduced people’s heart rate and increased their res­pi­ra­to­ry sinus arrhyth­mia (a mark­er of good car­dio­vas­cu­lar health) while mak­ing them feel less anx­ious. Sculpt­ing with clay has been found to change wave pat­terns in our brains in ways that reflect a relaxed, med­i­ta­tive state. There is evi­dence that lis­ten­ing to poet­ry can have sim­i­lar effects on the brain as lis­ten­ing to music can, giv­ing us peak emo­tion­al experiences.

The authors go through many exam­ples of how peo­ple turn to art when they need to heal from acute or chron­ic trauma—for exam­ple, first respon­ders, war vet­er­ans suf­fer­ing post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, or peo­ple of col­or fac­ing ongo­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. They also high­light pro­grams using art ther­a­py to help folks in their recov­ery and research labs study­ing heal­ing through art, such as the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts Cre­ative Forces pro­gram for vets and the Dra­ma Ther­a­py The­ater and Health Lab at New York University.

Some of the con­nec­tions between art and heal­ing offered in the book seem a bit wild, though. For exam­ple, the authors point to the work of John Beaulieu, who has used var­i­ous sound pat­terns to aid peo­ple suf­fer­ing from trau­ma or oth­er men­tal health dis­or­ders. Though evi­dence for the effec­tive­ness of this treat­ment may be thin, it’s intrigu­ing to con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ties for sound heal­ing, giv­en that some exper­i­ments have found sound waves can cause heart cells to move and form new tis­sue and pro­tect us from the harm­ful effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Art in everyday life:

What does all of this point to? Though the research may be rel­a­tive­ly young, there’s enough to say that we should all con­sid­er mak­ing time for art and aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ences in our every­day life. Enjoy­ing art seems to con­tribute to our flour­ish­ing, say Magsamen and Ross, help­ing us to stay health­i­er and happier.

To that end, they argue that the arts belong in schools, where they help aug­ment both learn­ing and well-being in chil­dren. And they encour­age adults to engage in art, whether that means paint­ing, com­pos­ing, cook­ing, or danc­ing, or it means lis­ten­ing to music, walk­ing in nature, watch­ing a play, or sit­ting inside a cathe­dral. That’s because art does so much good for our minds and bod­ies, help­ing us to cul­ti­vate our curios­i­ty, stay open to our emo­tions, expe­ri­ence sur­prise or nov­el­ty, think dif­fer­ent­ly about life, embrace ambi­gu­i­ty, engage the sens­es, feel awe, and more. It may even help heal your soul.

The arts can trans­form you like noth­ing else. They can help move you from sick­ness to health, stress to calm, or sad­ness to joy, and they enable you to flour­ish and thrive,” write the authors. “Are you ready? The world, and its beau­ty, are there wait­ing for you.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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