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  • Writer's pictureSTEVE COOKE AATA

How art, music and dance affect your brain and body

Preview By Steve Cooke

The creative arts are not a luxury for our downtime, but an important contributor to physical and mental well-being, says Susan Magsamen, co-author of a book on the new field of neuroaesthetics, which studies the brain’s responses to art.

“I need it for my soul and my health and my survival,” she says. “It’s not a nice to have, it’s a have to have.”

Susan Magsamen gardens, knits, and crochets. She writes prose and poems and sings and hums daily “to the chagrin of my husband,” she says. Every Friday night, she and her husband get together in their living room and dance.

Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us, co-written with Ivy Ross, is an authoritative guide to how neuroaesthetics can help us transform traditional medicine and build healthier communities.

The book weaves a tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to enhance their lives.

The arts can deliver potent, accessible, and proven solutions for the well-being of everyone. Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross offer compelling research that shows how engaging in an art project - from painting and dancing to expressive writing, architecture and more - for as little as forty-five minutes reduces the stress hormone cortisol, no matter your skill level, and just one art experience per month can extend your life by ten years.

Susan Magsamen – “Most people think about the arts or about health, but they don’t really think about arts and health together. There are some similarities to mindfulness and meditation, and to a flow state. Part of what’s happening in those kinds of very focused spaces where you’re not thinking about 100 other things is that you’re letting your mind go, and that brings you to a stress-free state.”

“We get a lot of really positive benefits from exercise. But when you think about dance, dance is a very social activity. Cultural dances have specific uses and meanings, including ceremonies and rituals (weddings, births, rites of passage) as well as pleasure. Cultural dances often have a story to tell and a message to be expressed, and they are passed down generation to generation. These stories through dances are told to us when we are young, and they have great meaning for us individually and as a culture. And that meaning is important for memory and for being able to do something that feels good. Also, there is an aspect of community-building that’s different from exercise.”

“A: Every week, my husband and I spend an hour or so with our cousin who has frontotemporal dementia. And it’s extraordinary how when we sing “You Are My Sunshine” or “Amazing Grace,” she comes right back. It’s the closest thing to magic I have seen.”

“Scientists know that music is processed in many different areas of the brain. There’s repetition in the way that music is encoded; the hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores short-term memory, which is often the first region to fail for people with dementia. Over time, memories are consolidated and are stored in a distributed manner in the cerebral cortex. It’s fascinating that somehow our brains have figured out how to duplicate knowledge, especially information that’s really important.”

“We misunderstand the arts and aesthetics and their role in our lives. I hope that this book pulls us back, and allows us to have more of a conversation about the fact that we’re wired for art. We are physiologically wired for art; our brains respond to it without needing to be taught.”

“It really makes sense to understand the neurobiology, physiology, and psychology of our responses to art and how that can inform practice that we do every day. I’m really hoping that the book starts a conversation about how this work, these arts and aesthetics, can change our lives in little and big ways.”

In Your Brain on Art offers a vision of what a life lived with an aesthetic mind-set could look like.

Susan Magsamen suggests bringing more art into our lives:

Develop an arts practice: We hope that people start to think about 20 minutes of an arts practice, whatever that is, throughout the day. This could be music, dancing, colouring, sculpting, or knitting,

Appreciate art in your daily life: It doesn’t have to be an art work out — it can be an effort to appreciate the art in your daily activities. Preparing food or gardening can both be artistic pursuits.

Be creative about living with art: Other ways to live with the arts include waking up to smells that make you happy. Embrace the sheer joy of singing in the shower. Gaze at the clouds and find new images. Bring flowers indoors.

The point, Susan Magsamen says, is to allow an appreciation of art and what it can do for us back into our lives. “These are tools that are available to you right now.”

Canongate Books; Main edition (30 Mar. 2023)

Susan Magsamen is the founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she is a faculty member. She is also the co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint. Susan works with both the public and private sectors using arts and culture evidence-based approaches in areas including health, child development, education, workforce innovation, rehabilitation, and social equity.

Ivy Ross is the Vice President of Design for hardware product area at Google, where she leads a team that has won over 225 design awards. She is a National Endowment for Arts grant recipient and was ninth on Fast Company’s list of the one hundred Most Creative People in Business in 2019. Ross believes that the intersection of arts and sciences is where the most engaging and creative ideas are found.

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