An Excerpt from Your Brain on Art

Susan Magsamen, Ivy Ross

May 10, 2023


A life-altering journey through the science of neuroaesthetics that offers proof of how our brains and bodies are transformed when we participate in the arts and aesthetic experiences, and how this knowledge can improve our physical and mental health, help us learn and flourish, and build stronger communities.


We’re on the verge of a cultural shift in which the arts can deliver potent, accessible, and proven solutions for the well-being of everyone.

We now know that working on an art project for forty-five minutes can reduce stress by 25 percent and that just one art experience per month can extend your life by ten years. That playing music increases synapses and gray matter, enhancing learning. That the vibrations of a tuning fork can create sound waves to counteract anxiety. That new technology like virtual reality can provide cutting edge pain therapy. That immersive and interactive exhibits dissolve the boundaries between art and viewers, engaging all of our senses, strengthening cognition and memory. Doctors are even prescribing museum visits to address loneliness, dementia and many other issues. 

Your Brain on Art is a portal into this new understanding about how the arts and aesthetics can help us transform traditional medicine, build healthier communities, and mend an aching planet.

Including conversations with artists such as David Byrne, Renée Fleming and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson, Your Brain On Art is an authoritative guide to the new science of neuroaesthetics. It weaves a tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers, and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to enhance physical and mental well-being.

The excerpt below is from Chapter Six, "Flourishing." 


The Nomadic School of Wonder. The Salk Institute. Cirque du Soleil. These all have something essential in common: the vibrancy of a multifaceted immersive environment. Arts experiences and aesthetic places like these provide what brain researchers call enriched environments. Enrichment refers to places that offer a variety of multisensory stimulation, which, in turn, triggers the neuroplasticity in your brain. 

Anjan Chatterjee has been researching the ways in which architecture contributes to our overall wellbeing. He is interested in how certain architectural features, like ceiling height, light from windows, and volume of a room, affect neural and mental processes. Anjan conducted a study in Spain where he put participants into an fMRI machine and monitored their brain activity while looking at 200 images of interiors. He continued this study online in the United States, giving participants these interior photos and asking them to rate them based on sixteen different psychological parameters such as beauty and comfort. Anjan found “three components that were robustly associated with feeling good about the spaces,” he explained in a 2021 interview. “Coherence, how organized a room appears; fascination, how interesting the room is; and hominess, how comfortable one would feel in the space.”  

Despite architecture and design being subjective overall, there are general principles of visual and spatial design that register for all of us and are, Anjan says, based on biological facts. 

Certain architectural elements have the ability to not just make us feel fascinated or comfortable, but to heighten our sensory experiences to the point of connecting us with the spiritual. Julio Bermudez, a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America, is studying the ways in which the design of buildings, like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, changes our neurological states. The Basilica, like many of our great religious and sacred spaces, contains soaring ceilings, domed roofs, exceptional light and grandeur. Consider, too, the epic buildings of humanity: the brilliant symmetry of the Egyptian pyramids, the mysterious configuration of Stonehenge. There’s Agra’s Taj Mahal, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família. Each leaves us speechless, unable to find words to match our feelings. 

“We know from thousands of years of history that people have spent their best resources and incredible amounts of time to design and construct architecture that allows people to access states of being or understanding that are spiritual—feelings such as calmness, awe. Wonder, enlightenment. Wellbeing, wholeness, joy,” Bermudez said in a 2021 interview. 

Architecture critic and author Sarah Williams Goldhagen believes the future of architecture lies in harnessing the new knowledge of neueroaesthetics to build environments that better support human feelings and well-being. She wrote about the neuroscience and cognitive psychology of the built environment in her 2017 book Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. “Architects always aim to create experiential effects through design.” Sarah told us, “and in the past, their methodology for doing so primarily involved drawing on personal memories and experiences, mixed with maybe a little sociology and often a lot of historical precedents.” 

Now, though, she says the growing body of research emerging from environmental psychology and the cognitive sciences, is giving us a “solid evidentiary foundation for how people experience design elements in built environments.” “Do high ceilings prime expansive thinking? They do. Do shiny, blood-red surfaces raise stress levels? They do. And so on. Why wouldn’t architects want to make data-supported decisions about what design features to select to create a given experiential effect?" 


Excerpted fromYour Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us by Susan Magsamen & Ivy Ross. 
Copyright © by NeuroArts, LLC.
All rights reserved.


About the Authors

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.

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Ivy Ross is the Vice President for Hardware at Google, where she leads a team that has won over 225 design awards.

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