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How art, music and dance affect your brain and body

In their upcoming book, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross promote the new science of neuroaesthetics — how creative pursuits can promote physical and mental health

An illustration of a person looking at a colorful canvas
(George Wylesol for The Washington Post)
5 min

Richard Sima will return next week.

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

To Magsamen, founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, her artistic pursuits are about far more than hobbies. “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.”

This is your brain on art

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.

I spoke with Magsamen about the emerging field of neuroarts and her new book, “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us,” co-written with Ivy Ross, vice president of design for Hardware Products at Google. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you think that a book on art and the brain was needed?

A: Most people think about the arts or about health, but they don’t really think about arts and health together.

Q: You write in the book about many studies showing that when people are creating or viewing art, they end up in a very focused, calm state. What is it about creating art that leads to those mindful states?

A: 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.

Q: How do dance and music affect the body and brain. How much of the effect is creative expression, and how much is about exercise?

A: 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, rights 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.

Music’s effects on the brain

Q: One of the most well-known effects of art on our health and mental state is the effect of music on people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Why do you think we respond so strongly to familiar tunes, even when we can’t remember the faces of our loved ones?

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.

Q: What do you want people to take from this book?

A: 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.

How to bring art into your life

In “Your Brain on Art,” Magsamen and Ross offer a vision of what a life lived with an aesthetic mind-set could look like. Here are some ways Magsamen suggests to bring more art into your life.

  • Develop an arts practice: “We hope that people start to think about 20 minutes of an arts practice, whatever that is, throughout the day,” Magsamen says. This could be music, dancing, coloring, sculpting or knitting,
  • Appreciate art in your daily life: It doesn’t have to be an art workout — 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, 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,” she says.

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email and we may answer it in a future column.

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