Fortune Well May 15, 2023
Susan Magsamen dances like no one’s watching, often singing or humming to the tunes of Bonnie Raitt or Miles Davis on Friday evenings with her husband in the living room.
She moves and sings pretty badly, she admits, but it doesn’t faze her.
“You don’t need to be good, but you have to be all in,” Magsamen tells Fortune, touting the benefits of participating in the arts for fun. “You don’t have to be good at the arts to have great benefit.”
While countless studies show how exercise, meditation, and a nutritious diet strengthen the brain, emerging evidence shows making space for art produces similar results.
Dancing, gardening, and writing poetry help to improve Magsamen’s mood and help her engage her senses, she says.
“We are literally physically hardwired for these arts and aesthetic experiences,” says Magsamen, founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Pedersen Brain Science Institute. “We want to feel.”
Magsamen and co-author, Ivy Ross, dive into how art is an integral part of living and how to incorporate it into your life, in their book, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us, published last month.
Conventional wisdom tells us that productivity means efficiency—and often, creativity becomes an afterthought, Ross says. In many ways, art has been sidestepped for more practical, seemingly quicker ways to get tasks done. But art is the bedrock of the human experience and the ability to understand and express emotion for a reason, argues Magsamen.
“We’re not happier as a society because we’ve been optimizing for productivity,” she says. “If you look back, we used to sing [and] dance. We didn’t even have a word for art. It was all we did.”
Recall the craze for the adult coloring book, the pleasure of kneading clay, or the allure of strolling in a gallery admiring a beautiful painting.
Research shows art can lower stress, improve mood, and help regulate emotions—and art therapy can promote healing and encourage self-expression. Magsamen, who began a hands-on, creative learning company called Curiosity Kits in the 1980s, found art helped children learn better and regulate their emotions. Dina Lobo, a trauma support specialist, sees her clients’ moods improve after expressing themselves through one art session. And art promotes mindfulness, which reduces rumination.
It’s because art engages our senses in the most intense ways.
“It turns out that arts and aesthetic experiences are some of the most salient ways that we create those neural pathways,” Magsamen says. Feeling, seeing, and hearing through art can feed our brain and allow us to feel first before thinking, Ross says. So the esteemed phrase, stop and smell the roses, may have scientific backing.
Even engaging in art through your eyes stimulates the brain. A study from the University College London found more blood flowed to the brain when people viewed a beautiful painting.
While we often consider arts and crafts child’s play, everyone can benefit from art regardless of age. An art activity a month increased life expectancy by 10 years, according to the authors. And previous research on older adults published in the British Medical Journal found those who engaged in art activities, like attending museums, concerts, or galleries a few times a year, died older. Stimulating the brain through new activities can help reduce the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s; sound and light may also improve the cognitive decline associated with these disorders by strengthening certain neural connections, Magsamen and Ross write in their book.
Contrary to common belief, there are no barriers to entry for the arts. Everyone can engage in the arts for the sake of play and curiosity—and you don’t need to be artistic to start.
“Society says, ‘Oh, well, if you’re not talented, you shouldn’t do it,’” Magsamen says, and that is the biggest mistake people make.
Art is anything that engages your senses. Think: dancing, sewing, crocheting, journaling, gardening, or cooking. Even shutting off other distractions to listen to the radio or walking through nature is a form of art, Magsamen says. Start by rediscovering the type of art you loved when you were younger; it can be a great way to choose where to begin. And as research shows, admiring the arts also has brain benefits.
You don’t need to sign up for weekly ballet lessons and master the positions to see art’s results on the brain. In fact, 20 minutes of any art form can improve mood and lower cortisol or stress levels. You can work up to doing the 20 minutes on a more frequent basis.
So instead of seeing art as reserved for the so-called creatives, embrace the power of the senses and start small. Hum, doodle, or listen to the radio, for starters. And then maybe dance like no one’s watching because your brain will thank you later.
“Eight hours of sleep is good. Science is now telling us that 20 minutes a day of some art activity is equally as good,” Ross says. “You should add that to your daily diet.”
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