Many of us will have heard the old adage – originally a quote from English playwright William Congreve’s 1697 play, The Mourning Bride – that ‘Musick has charms to soothe the savage Breast’.
But according to Your Brain on Art authors, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, when considered within the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics, the arts have provable restorative powers that go beyond their more recognisable attributes to calm and soothe our troubled souls.
As Magsamen explains: ‘The arts trigger the release of neurochemicals, hormones and endorphins that offer you an emotional release. When you experience virtual reality, read poetry or fiction, see a film, listen to a piece of music or dance you are biologically changed. There is a neurochemical exchange that can lead to what Aristotle called catharsis, or a release of emotion that leaves you more connected to yourself and others afterwards.’
- Our reaction to art isn’t just emotional, it is physiological; when stimulated in a certain manner, the brain releases chemicals that flood our system with feelings of wellbeing, elation, happiness and contentment
- Now that we can map these shifts using fMRI scanners, Ivy Ross and neuroscientist co-author of Your Brain on Art, Susan Magsamen identify how we can stimulate the senses via neuroart, design and architecture
- They indicate that aesthetics can induce states of bliss, contentment and wellbeing – which has huge implications for sectors from hospitality to hospitals
- The book posits how and why art can become a powerful therapeutic tool for dealing with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
This happens because the chemicals ebbing and flowing through our brain and nervous system – including serotonin (wellbeing), dopamine (elation), endorphins (reduced pain), oxytocin (happiness), cortisol (stress) and nitric oxide (enhanced vascular flow) – are triggered or reduced as different parts of our brain respond to particular movements, colours, shapes, rhythms, smells or textures. Ross, as she tells it, has even carried a tuning fork in her bag because the resonant sounds of the notes C and G, when combined, can trigger oxytocin and truly soothe those savage breasts.
The arts trigger the release of neurochemicals, hormones and endorphins that offer you an emotional release
The curative science of art
But before you think Magsamen and Ross are tie-dye hippy sorts with a penchant for vibrating crystals, tuning forks and cross-legged lotus postures, their collective CVs are worth a tour around, to understand the power of the case they are laying out for the arts to be regarded as a viable and scientifically robust way to improve and cure many of those illnesses we now tackle with variations on the very chemicals art releases into our bodies.
Magsamen is the founder of the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), at the Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics, a pioneering initiative at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School for Medicine, while Ross, a recent judge on our Futures 100 Innovators Award, is the vice-president for the hardware product area at Google, as well as being ranked in Fast Company’s top 10 list of the 100 Most Creative People In Business. So, both come from hard-nosed science, research and innovation backgrounds. They have tackled their subject in a scientific way, taking a wholly evidence-based position on how art can tackle very physical conditions, as well as those emotional maladies we tend to bracket it with.
Take the sound of music, for instance. While we may accept to some degree that it can and does improve our mood when we hear a certain song, what if your doctor prescribed it to relieve very high levels of chronic pain? As Ross points out, this is already happening. Sound therapy is now being used around the world. One form known as vibroacoustic therapy, or VAT, treats both physical and mental pain by imparting a low-frequency sine wave into the body using a device embedded with speakers. VAT is effective enough that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US has approved the therapy for increasing pain relief, circulation and mobility.
Why does it work? Several different research studies have been published showing that music played at a certain frequency, or played at a particular beat – 60 bpm if you want to know – decreases levels of cortisol, while increasing oxytocin, a hormone sometimes used therapeutically to treat depression and anxiety.
Salience and The Aesthetic Triad
The same rhythmic beat can induce an alpha wave state, while enriched environments (think Prospero’s Island full of noises and sweet music), universal symmetries (sunsets, horizons, a child’s face), a Bach fugue or a grime set by Stormzy – all have roles to play in shaping our brains. The notion of neuroplasticity, where our brains can be rewired over time as our sense of what is salient or relevant changes our psyche, is what Magsamen refers to when exploring The Aesthetic Triad, a theoretical model developed by neurology, psychology and architecture professor Anjan Chatterjee, ‘which explains how three components – our sensorimotor systems, our reward system, and our cognitive knowledge and meaning-making – combine to form an aesthetic moment’.
‘At the centre of these three nodes,’ continues Ross, lies an experience that registers as aesthetic for you. ‘That experience consists of a combination of factors unique to you and your biology and circumstances, as well as containing some universal qualities that all humans find aesthetically compelling.’
This has huge and profound implications for art, but also for architects, designers, placemakers and CEOs who are now grappling with the rise of the experience economy on one hand, and global organisations trying to come to terms with making workplaces more salient, cultural and transformative on the other. As we debate the role of work in lives that increasingly crave an enriched sense of purpose no longer defined by what we do, but who we are, Ross and Magsamen’s research becomes highly pertinent.
That experience consists of a combination of factors unique to you and your biology and circumstances, as well as containing some universal qualities that all humans find aesthetically compelling
Transforming the everyday
Your Brain on Art is alive with insight, revealing how we can use the hidden to reinvigorate the everyday, whether it be a brand or a person’s brain. Across a wide spectrum of the arts, Ross and Magsamen reveal multiple case studies proving their thesis that art isn’t just a mental salve for unspecified ills, but a physical one for all too real and debilitating ills and disappointments.
We learn how rhythmic movement can release serotonin and endorphins that allow us to deal more effectively with physical pain; how therapeutic drawing activates that part of our brain associated with verbal processing so we can verbalise trauma as well as visualise it; how fMRI studies of people reading poetry ignited those parts of their brain associated with a state neuroscientists refer to as ‘pre-chill’, where, as Magsamen puts it: ‘We ride a gentle crescendo of calm emotion. Which is to say, reading a few poems when restless or unable to sleep can help relax you and give you more perspective and insight.’
But as both explain, taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing – the base components from which all art, culture, architecture and design come from, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Research into neuroaesthetics, or the neuroarts, as they prefer to call this emerging area and movement, has also sparked a debate about just how many senses we have. ‘Some suggest that the number could be as great as fifty-three,’ continues Magsamen, ‘and include complex dynamic networks such as thermoception, or how we sense heat, equilibrioception, our perception of balance; and proprioception, our awareness of how our body moves through space.’
‘Beyond these basic biomarkers already captured through wearable tech, adds Ross, ‘engineers are perfecting wearable skin sensors capable of analysing our hormones, proteins and chemical states in real time, offering us early warning conditions like prolonged stress, while others are at work developing smart threads, or clothing that moves with you throughout the day and become a data stream via circuitry invisible to the naked eye.’
Such knowledge will, they believe, allow us to develop sensory literacy programmes for schools and the office place where we can equip people with a deeper, more attuned understanding of how we can use the senses and related arts to proactively manage our long-term health and wellbeing.
Integrating the arts with virtual and augmented realities based on the science that now sits behind them can teach us to be more empathic, sympathetic, curious and alive to possibility – and to flourish. Using all of our senses and the hidden powers and chemicals they trigger could help us become more purposeful, meaningful, more sociable – and, of course, happy.
Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us, by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, is published by Penguin Random House. You can hear them in conversation with The Future Laboratory’s co-founder Martin Raymond in his Back to the F**Kture podcast here.