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What Happens To Your Brain On Art? Discover The Research Here

June 07, 2023
Branded Content Editor
Image by Branko Starcevic / Stocksy
June 07, 2023

We all have a different relationship to the arts. For some, art is the epicenter of human experience; for others it's a mere luxury or afterthought. But at some point, we've all been moved by a song, poem, or film. Art changes our bodies and brains—and Your Brain on Art shows us how. Co-authored by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, this book introduces the emerging field of neuroaesthetics. Through compelling research and storytelling, it proves that not only are the arts powerful, but they're also necessary. There's a reason doctors are prescribing museum visits and first responders are painting to release trauma. Art is healing. And after this read, you'll understand why. 

Below is an excerpt from Your Brain on Art, including a quiz known as the Aesthetic Responsiveness Assessment (figure out if you need more art in your life!). Click here to purchase your own copy.

Excerpt from Your Brain on Art

You know the transformative power of art. You've gotten lost in music, in a painting, in a movie or a play, and you felt something shift within you. You've read a book so compelling that you pressed it into the hands of a friend; you heard a song so moving, you listened to it over and over, memorizing every word. The arts bring joy. Inspiration. Well-being. Understanding. Even salvation. And while these experiences may not be easy to explain, you have always known they are real and true. 

But we now have scientific proof that the arts are essential to our very survival.

We know how art, in its countless forms, heals our bodies and minds. We've got the evidence for how the arts enhance our lives and build community. We know, too, how the aesthetic experiences that make up every moment alter our basic biology. 

Advances in technology allow us to study human physiology like never before, and a growing community of multidisciplinary investigators is researching how the arts and aesthetics affect us, giving rise to a field that is radically changing how we understand and translate the power of the arts. It's called neuroaesthetics. Or, more broadly, neuroarts

In short, the arts and aesthetics change us and, as a result, they can transform our lives. 

We wrote our book, Your Brain on Art, for everyone—for those who have had little experience with the arts or sciences and for those who are in these fields. Our goal is to share the building blocks of the neuroarts with you. We hope it will enrich and inspire you, your family, your colleagues, and your community. 

Many of us tend to think of the arts as either entertainment or as an escape. A luxury of some kind. But what this book will show you is that the arts are so much more. They can be used to fundamentally change your day-to-day life. They can help address serious physical and mental health issues, with remarkable results. And they can both help you learn and flourish. 

At a home in upstate New York, a man with advanced Alzheimer's disease recognizes his son for the first time in five years after he hears a curated playlist of songs from his past. In Finland, a young mother sings to her newborn to help recover from postpartum depression faster than with antidepressants alone. In Virginia, first responders paint to release the trauma of front-line care, and mask-making helps soldiers recover from PTSD. In Israel, a cancer hospital designed with sensory experiences in mind helps patients heal faster. 

Around the world, health care workers are prescribing museum visits. Digital designers are working with cognitive neuroscientists to find new treatments for attention deficit disorder and to enhance brain health. There's a virtual reality program that alleviates pain. And because research shows that sensory-rich environments help us learn faster and retain information better, many schools, workplaces, and public spaces are being re-imagined and redesigned. 

All because of advances in neuroaesthetics.

In the same way that the formal creation of the neuroscience discipline in the late 20th century has fueled a revolution in our understanding of the brain, the formation of the field of neuroarts is building an important body of evidence about our brains on art. And there is so much more to come. Artist Norman Galinsky's work Spiral Cluster represents the dynamic relationship between the arts and sciences. Discoveries and findings about human biology will continue to give rise to arts-based, personalized prevention and wellness programs, increasingly becoming part of mainstream health care and public health as clinicians and insurers are convinced by the mounting evidence that the arts really do help us heal and thrive. 

Simple, quick, accessible "acts of art" can enhance your life. Already we see a rise in microdosing of aesthetics as people use specific scents to relieve nausea, calibrate light sources to adjust energy levels, and use specific tones of sound to alleviate anxiety. In the same way you might exercise to lower cholesterol and increase serotonin in the brain, just 20 minutes of doodling or humming can provide immediate support for your physical and mental state. In fact, so many studies have shown the swift physiological benefits to our health from the arts and aesthetics that we debated calling our book Twenty Minutes on Art.

The two of us have come to think of Your Brain on Art as a kaleidoscope, each story and piece of information forming colorful objects, beautiful patterns, and shapes within it. Make just one small turn of the kaleidoscope aperture and your perception of the multifaceted picture changes, revealing something you've never seen before. And the possibilities are infinite. 

Not in some idealistic, intellectual way. 

In a real, grounded, practical way. 

Your Brain on Art will show you how.

Quiz: Do you have an aesthetic mindset?

An aesthetic mindset is simply the ways in which you are aware of the arts and aesthetics around you and how you bring them into your life with purpose. 

Those who have an aesthetic mindset share four key attributes: (1) a high level of curiosity, (2) a love of playful, open-ended exploration, (3) keen sensory awareness, and (4) a drive to engage in creative activities as a maker and/or beholder. 

The Irish poet John O'Donohue once said, "Art is the essence of awareness." Being in the aesthetic mindset is being present and attuned to the environment you are in. It fosters an ongoing connection to your sensory experiences and opens the door to creating art and appreciating aesthetic experiences—that ultimately change you. 

We invite you to take the following short survey. The Aesthetic Mindset Index is based on a research instrument called the Aesthetic Responsiveness Assessment, or AReA, developed by Ed Vessel and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, where Ed is a cognitive neuroscience researcher. Collaborating with Ed, we have modified the AReA to provide additional prompts that explore your aesthetic mind and the ways in which aesthetics and the arts currently affect you. We suggest you take it now, and then take it again in a month or two after you've had time to go out in the world and try some of the ideas in Your Brain on Art. See how your score changes.

Read the following statements and record the number that corresponds to how often they apply to you, using the following scale.

1 = Never

2 = Rarely

3 = Sometimes

4 = Often

5 = Very Often

1. I attend music, dance, theater, museums, and/or digital art activities.

1 2 3 4 5

2. I see beauty when I look at or experience art.

1 2 3 4 5

3. I am emotionally moved by music.

1 2 3 4 5

4. I am impressed by symmetry in artistic works.

1 2 3 4 5

5. I sculpt, paint, draw, craft, create films/video, or design.

1 2 3 4 5

6. When I look at art, I feel positive energy or invigoration.

1 2 3 4 5

7. I write poetry, lyrics, nonfiction, and/or fiction.

1 2 3 4 5

8. When I view art, my heart beats faster, or I have other physical effects.

1 2 3 4 5

9. I appreciate the visual design of buildings and interior spaces.

1 2 3 4 5

10. I take (or have taken) classes in art, craft, creative writing, aesthetics, etc.

1 2 3 4 5

11. When making or beholding art, I experience a sense of connection and community.

1 2 3 4 5

12. When experiencing the arts, I feel a oneness, unity, or connectedness with the universe/nature/existence/deity.

1 2 3 4 5

13. I am deeply moved when I look at art.

1 2 3 4 5

14. I experience joy, serenity, or other positive emotions when I am making or beholding art.

1 2 3 4 5

How to score your results

The scale is organized into three categories:

Aesthetic Appreciation is the degree to which a person is responsive to the aesthetics of experiences and of their environment.

Intense Aesthetic Experience is the degree to which a person regularly responds to aesthetic experiences in a very intense way as opposed to more commonplace forms of appreciation.

Creative Behavior represents the degree to which a person engages in creative behaviors such as art-making.

Complete the following steps to determine your individual score for each of these areas as well as a cumulative score. Your cumulative score represents an overall snapshot of aesthetic responsiveness.

Individual scale scores: Count your score for each question below and divide by the number of questions.

Aesthetic Appreciation: Questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 13, 14

_____ Divided by 8 =______

Intense Aesthetic Experience: Questions 8, 12, 13

_____ Divided by 3 =______

Creative Behavior: Questions 5, 7, 10, 11

_____ Divided by 4 =_____

Cumulative scale score: To determine your cumulative score add all 14 of your individual question scores together and divide by 14.

______ Divided by 14 =______

Scoring: To see where your aesthetic responsiveness is on the three individual scales and the cumulative scale, use this ranking to determine your aesthetic responsiveness:

1 Low

2 Below Average

3 Average

4 Above Average

5 High

For example, you might have a 3 in Aesthetic Appreciation, a 2 in Intensive Aesthetic Experience, a 5 in Creative Behavior, and a cumulative score of 4.

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