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, 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 “neuroaesthetics”—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.”