Your Brain on Art | An Excerpt from the Innovation & Creativity Category

Susan Magsamen, Ivy Ross

December 28, 2023


The arts are not just for entertainment or escape. Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross use scientific evidence to prove that art can transform your life, improve health, and aid in personal growth.

As Porchlight's Creative Director Gabbi Cisneros writes:

Your Brain on Art will satisfy both the art-obsessed and the art-indifferent (if there is such a thing), because it’s about the larger impact of art: as medicine, as teacher, as activist, as problem-solver. The authors funnel this huge, amorphous subject of art and focus on how our brains and bodies react to art, and how understanding that can help us build a better world. If we all better understood and trusted neuroarts principles, implementing them in our architecture, routines, relationships, workplaces, and more, we would have to implement fewer band-aid fixes on humans’ health and wellness.

In the following excerpt, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross introduce readers to the concept of neuroaesthetics, arguing that even the smallest "acts of art" can change anyone's life for the better. 

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 this book 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 frontline 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, healthcare 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 reimagined and redesigned.

All because of advances in neuroaesthetics.

In the same way that the formal creation of the neuroscience discipline in the late twentieth 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 entitled Spiral Cluster, at the beginning of this introduction, 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 healthcare 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 twenty 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 this book Twenty Minutes on Art.

The two of us have come to think of this book 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.

This book will show you how.


Excerpted from Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform UsCopyright © 2023 by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. 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.

Learn More

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

Learn More

We have updated our privacy policy. Click here to read our full policy.