Neuroaesthetics: How Art is Scientifically Proven to Help Brain Health

Todd Siler (detail).

Todd Siler
Todd Siler (detail). Siler recognizes the human brain not only as necessary for creating art, but also champions art as necessary for the well being of the human brain.
 
Research shows that art is not just a fundamental aspect of our humanity, but also essential to our well-being.

Research shows that art is not just a fundamental aspect of our humanity, but also essential to our well-being.

Courtesy Elizabeth Jameson

Elizabeth Jameson, Narrative of the MRI

“Neuroesthetics is the study of how arts measurably changes the body, brain, and behavior and how this knowledge is translated into practice.”

Susan Magsamen

The mind-boggling, semi-new scientific field of neuroaesthetics may turn the art world on its head––in a good way. Emerging brain research proves what artists and art lovers have sensed all along: Art can make us feel better. But that’s only the beginning. There’s more, much more, to neuroesthetics.

“Neuroaesthetics emerged in the late 1990s, and nobody is clear on who coined the term, but a simple definition is that neuroesthetics is the study of how arts measurably changes the body, brain, and behavior and how this knowledge is translated into practice,” said Susan Magsamen, founder, and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Neurology received a boost from an array of brain-imagining technology, allowing scientists to observe and document the effects of visual art, along with music and dance, upon the human brain. And while the amygdala, hippocampus, and other brain components are almost infinitely complex, the basic neuroaesthetic findings are straightforward.

Courtesy Elizabeth Jameson

Daniel's Brain, Sagittal MRI view of a neurologist's MRI.

“You don’t need to be a brain scientist to understand that the arts have physiological, psychological, and spiritual benefits,” Magsamen said.

Artists have always known that the arts change us in profound ways. The added part is that because of noninvasive technology allowing us to get inside heads, we’re understanding more neurobiology at a detailed level,” she said. “And the only reason that matters is so we can create better solutions using the arts for personalized prescriptions, fine-tuning what to dose and dosages, and understanding how to apply art forms for healing.”

Magsamen and Ivy Ross co-authored the book, “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us,” forthcoming from Random House in March this year. The book presents complex neuroesthetics research in a layperson’s language. The thesis is that art can help billions of people “flourish, learn better, and build stronger communities.”

Magsamen said, “Our focus is on ‘neuroarts.’ It’s a friendlier word. Neuroarts determines solution-oriented ways to approach health and well-being.”

The Random House press release states, “Poring over the data, Magsamen and Ross found that just 20 minutes of art a day makes a huge difference as either the maker or the beholder.”

“This work is a lot of wind in the sails of the arts and health,” Magsamen said. “Curiosity, surprise, wonder — all attributes found in art for the maker or the beholder — these are really important for human development. Researchers are finding that we as humans are hard-wired for aesthetic experiences. The arts are not just fundamental aspects of our humanity, but also essential to our well-being.

quilted textile
Courtesy Elizabeth Jameson

quilted textile from the artist's solar plate etching of one of her MRIs

quilted textile
Courtesy Elizabeth Jameson

quilted textile from the artist's solar plate etching of one of her MRIs

Todd Siler
Courtesy of Todd Siler

Todd Siler’s artworks and installations explore and illustrate the brain’s role in creativity.

“We have 100 billion neurons, and the way we grow and learn is through neuroplasticity. The more enriched environments, the more sensorial — not chaotic, but in a way that feels safe and often novel — is how our brains grow dramatically,” Magsamen said.

She added, “We have relegated art to only entertainment or enrichment – not lifeblood or birthright. We want to put art at the center of our lives, not as something that would be nice to have.”

Courtesy Elizabeth Jameson

Good Egg

“Art can create new neuropathways in the brain because this happens through sensorial experience.”

Susan Magsamen

The implications of their research pose expansive possibilities for art and architecture, as well as music, dance, and crafts — alternative medicine that is easier for most people to swallow. In a culture reeling from the pandemic, social justice and political travesties, epidemic health issues such as obesity, rising rates of depression and anxiety, suicide, and chronic diseases, our brains need a break. An art break.

“Art can create new neuropathways in the brain because this happens through sensorial experience. With high visual stimulation, if we see a lot of art or make a lot of art, we are growing — dramatically — parts of our brain,” she added. “And it’s never too late to create an enriched environment, whether as the maker or the beholder in any art form.”

Bolstered by empirical evidence supporting its validity, art, ideally, can become a good habit more people will aspire to, along the lines of flossing or getting ten thousand steps in per day. The visual arts can prove particularly powerful.

In his book “Atomic Habits,” James Clear underscores the importance of visuals in our environments. “The human body has about 11 million sensory receptors. Approximately 10 million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used for vision. Given that we are more dependent on vision than any other sense, it should come as no surprise that visual clues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior,” wrote Clear.

As a result, doctors now prescribe visits to art museums for some patients. More hospitals include art exhibitions and installations. Since color affects gray matter, colored light therapy is helping some Alzheimer’s patients.

A virtual reality program aimed at throwing snowballs in a wintry environment with penguins dramatically reduces pain in burn patients while their bandages are being changed. Firefighters use doodling to reduce job-related anxieties. The U.S. Veteran’s Administration offers a program in mask-making to help military personnel cope with PTSD.

And because research indicates that makers need not be proficient at their art or craft, more people are encouraged to try their hobbyist hands at painting, sculpture, and other arts and crafts.

Todd Siler, a brainiac in the best sense of the word, was well ahead of the neuroaesthetics curve. Siler, in 1986, was the first visual artist to earn a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his interdisciplinary studies in art and psychology. In 1981, he graduated with an MIT Master of Science degree in Visual Studies.

“I am a visual artist first and foremost who's spent 50 years of my life exploring the nature of human creativity — some 26 years before this emergent field of neuroaesthetics sprouted up from the soil of the arts to become a frontier in human neuroscience,” Siler said.

Courtesy of Todd Siler

Todd Siler, a multi-media artist, emphasizes the brain as a source and center for art, as well as all human experience.   

 

Siler, a multimedia artist, often turns to the brain as subject matter while simultaneously masterminding the brain through his visual art. His artist statement explains: "My metaphorical artworks intimate how the brain and all its creations are connected to nature, and how nature connects everything it creates."

In a fireside interview, Siler said, “All art is brain-based. Humans cannot create anything without the human brain's handiwork. Even our most sophisticated, sentient-like, virtually intelligent, machine-learning computer systems we use today to make art are re-creations of the brain's engine of invention & innovation."

In 2019, Simon Zalkind curated Siler’s exhibition titled “Mind Matters” at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Zalkind wrote, “The human brain is a biological construction of maddening, mysterious and elusive complexity. But as the neuro-scientific revolution has progressed, it has also become a cultural icon with symbolic and metaphoric associations providing a rich source of imagery and ideas for contemporary artists.”

Contemporary artist Elizabeth Jameson has lived with multiple sclerosis since 1990. “My art explores the beauty and meaning of life with chronic illness and disability,” she wrote in an email interview.

She is also a writer and a patient advocate based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jameson’s multi-media artworks incorporate her MRI brain scans and radiologist reports into mixed-media paper or textile works.

Asked how creating her brain scan-inspired art helps, Jameson said, “The fact that I can take my medical data (MRIs) that describe the frightening aspect of multiple sclerosis and then transform it into works of art that I find intriguing, empowering (reclaiming my agency over this data) and joyful not only impacts the way I view my body, brain, and disease, but hopefully allows others — physicians, neurologists, and the public at large — to see beyond the obvious, clinical, ‘proven’ language and images and contemplate the fullness of their humanity as well as the humanity of others.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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