A mind-altering journey through the new science behind humanity’s evolutionary birthright — to make and behold the arts and its power to transform our lives
Learn how this knowledge can improve our physical and mental health, help us learn and flourish, and build stronger communities.
Many of us think of the arts as entertainment or an escape. A luxury of some kind. This book will show you that the arts are so much more.
From artists David Byrne and Renée Fleming to evolutionary biologist E.O.Wilson, this book is a journey of discovery and an authoritative guide to the new science of neuroaesthetics that weaves a vibrant tapestry of breakthrough research, insights from multidisciplinary pioneers, and compelling stories from people who are using the arts to make a positive impact on our day-to-day life.
Your Brain on Art isn’t a plea to “bring back the arts.” It’s a call-to-arms for the radical integration of the arts with science and technology to design a more humane future. It’s about creating a new ethos that brings together different realms of human knowledge and experience to shape the future. It’s a fresh way of thinking and addressing the increasingly complex problems that face us. This book is perfectly poised to elevate this moment and bring it to the center of our cultural conversation.
We invite you to take this journey with us.
"The neuroscience of beauty, of witnessing or creating music, art, dance is an untapped doorway to healing the brain, to changing the very structure and function of our brains and minds. Your Brain on Art, explores the new science of neuroaesthetics, a way of reimagining how to live that includes art as an essential part of the human experience and an unexpected doorway to healing."
"This wonderful book demonstrates that art is essential for health, healing, community and bliss. Indeed, art both defines us and allows us to transcend our own small selves. Since the beginning of time, our species created art and art created us. The authors describe the new field of neuroaesthetics that measures how art changes the brain and other systems in the body. The book is well-researched and well-written. I couldn't put it down. I recommend it to all."
“This book blew my mind! An authoritative yet practical guide to the neuroarts--a term that, if you haven't heard it before, is even more reason to join its brilliant co-authors on a romp through the latest science on how art transforms the brain and the body.”
“This mind-bending book can help shape richer lives and a newer world. It’s the best description yet of the indivisibility of art, the natural world, and our neurological health."
“Art is often dismissed as a nice-to-have, but this important book shows that it is an absolute necessity for a life well-lived. Everyone should read this book. In it, you’ll learn how to reclaim your creativity, heal your body, soothe your spirit, and transform your community.”
Ingrid Fetell Lee
"Neuroscientists know that our experiences sculpt our brains leading to new connections. In this wonderful new book, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross show us how the experience of art helps to build connections and pathways for mental health. Your Brain on Art makes the case for neuroaesthetics at a time when all of us can benefit from what art can do not only for our souls but our brains.”
“Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, through extensive interviews and research, have created something beautiful and affirming with their book Your Brain on Art. Its pages provide proof for what so many of us have always known, that art, especially art in community, is transformative beyond measure.”
"Your Brain on Art is just the book we need now. It beautifully unifies the science and practice of the arts to the important moments of our lives, breaking down barriers between sectors and disciplines, and powerfully illustrating how we are evolutionarily wired to art. It’s an invitation to begin to welcome the arts for your own health and well-being today."
“This book brilliantly puts a new science to the experience of viewing and making art, and shows us how to use art to transform our daily lives. Your Brain on Art will change how you think about the creative world—both around you and within you.”
“In their captivating book, Your Brain on Art, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross have assembled something remarkable: a scientific framework for understanding how art affects us. For anyone who has been transfixed by a painting, or moved to tears by a piece of music, this book provides a fascinating tour of what goes on in the brain when we encounter art’s transformative power.”
Annie Murphy Paul
“An extraordinary and important book. Magsamen and Ross put us back in touch with one of the defining features of being human—art—and remind us of how and why it is important in all we do.”
“Your Brain on Art masterfully demonstrates the power of all artistic expression, from visual to musical, on brain health. This book shows us that a beautiful painting or haunting melody is not just entertainment, but bountiful nourishment for your brain, mind and soul.”
Dr. Rudolph Tanzi
“Your Brain on Art illuminates the tremendous potential of the arts for improving health and wellbeing and mending our frayed social fabric. Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross present an inspiring vision for the field of neuroaesthetics, and theirs is the kind of leadership that can spark radical change. This book makes a powerful, persuasive case for embedding arts in our healthcare.”
New York Journal of Books
Your Brain on Art is a happy marriage of science and art, too long seen as separated, even divorced, domains. Authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross convincingly show that making and experiencing art is a full body, full brain necessity for a health-filled, rewarding life, and not optional embellishment to a busy day.
As Magsamen and Ross put it, “the arts and aesthetics change us and, as a result, they can transform our lives.”
Your Brain on Art opens with a layperson-friendly yet comprehensive overview of how we perceived the world through our senses, and then understand those perceptions and make meaning through different regions of the brain on down to the structure of an individual neuron and how it combines with other neurons to create and maintain neural pathways.
“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.
This lays the foundation for understanding such core concepts as neuroplasticity (how our brains have evolved to promote lifelong learning), the importance of enriched (novelty-filled) environments, our individual “aesthetic triads” (how our individual physiology combines with cognition and meaning making to form an experience that is at once unique and yet capable of being shared with others), and our personal “default mode network,” our idiosyncratic way of deciphering “what you think is beautiful or not, memorable or not, meaningful or not . . . what makes the arts and aesthetics a very personal experience for each of us . . .”
While written for lay audiences, Your Brain on Art, with its comprehensive bibliography, is unarguably a literature review of studies exploring the impact of the arts on medicine, physical or psychological therapy, architecture, and design, and many more domains. Nonetheless, Your Brain on Art carefully grounds each new topic in interviews with scientists, artists, and lay participants.
This combination of scientific and personal story show how the arts help us heal and flourish as individuals and build stronger communities for all of us. Whether it’s gardening as a force for community building, music as treatment for schizophrenia, art making to restore emotional balance for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, singing to reduce post-partum depression and promote mother-infant bonding, there are few if any ways that the arts don’t make us wiser, more resilient people.
“The world, and its beauty, are there waiting for you,” write Magsamen and Ross, a fitting last line in a book proving the science, the joy, and the power of experiencing life enmeshed in the arts.
“This book is so revolutionary I fear I won’t have adequate words to describe how important I think it is. As a lifelong artist, performer, arts educator and arts advocate, I didn’t need to be convinced of the connection between brain function and art, but the breadth of the information in this book is astounding. The authors, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, bring an amazing array of experience and credentials to the table. Ross is Vice President for hardware product area at Google, and Magsamen is founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They are partners in both doing the research and applying it. Most of us who participate in the arts are aware of the power of the arts to relieve stress, spur creativity and create connections to others, past and present. But Ross and Magsamen take these ideas and go deeper, pointing to verifiable changes in the brain and neural system that affect our health and well-being. Did you know, for example, that certain heart scans reveal patterns reminiscent of quilt squares? Or that singing to a newborn baby releases hormones that calm both baby and mother? The authors make the case that arts of all types create measurable biological changes in the human body, and can be applied as therapies for mental, physical and social disorders and dysfunctions. This book should be required reading for medical professionals and students, mental health professionals, business executives, and even politicians. This work raises the question as to why there is so much opposition to public funding for the arts, and completely obliterates the argument that the arts are just a “frill” or “luxury” in our lives, and makes the case for thorough integration of the arts in all facets of our existence.”
In this captivating book, Magsamen and Ross tell us that “we are literally changed on a cellular level by aesthetics.” They describe how scientific research has caught up with the way in which art supports health, learning, and our sense of well-being in a field called neuroaesthetics. For me, the most compelling study the authors describe is one that was conducted by a Stanford cardiologist and his acoustic bioengineer colleague. They placed heart cells in a gelled substance and watched as the cells danced, riding “waves across the gel and into extraordinary patterns.” This puts the notion of being moved by music into a more literal realm! It is also one of many reasons the authors will say that “art and science are potent medicine, capable of radically transforming our physical health.” Magsamen and Ross explain the relevant science in a vernacular non-scientists can understand. For example, they describe our brains’ neurons as overlapping branches of a tree. These neurons are social and need connection with others to survive. In the language of the brain, these social connections are called synaptic. The intensity of the sensory input determines how synaptic circuits are wired. Memory-making experiences and sensory rich environments support greater connections. These authors say that the changes aesthetic experiences can make in us will transform our lives. Developing an aesthetic mindset is the first step, and they will give you advice on how to do that.
“I believe Your Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross is going to be a HUGE hit in the nonfiction community! I couldn't put this one down. If you liked or resonated with The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (who is quoted within the book), you'll be absolutely fascinated by this work of art in itself. I truly felt like this book was speaking to me with every turn of the page. As someone who struggles with mental health due to SA and childhood trauma and someone who is currently exploring the arts, this book was a wealth of information and an absolute treat!
I really enjoyed the easy to digest writing style and the way the book is organized into smaller sections. The book presents examples of how "the arts and aesthetics" are utilized to help many individuals cope with traumatic events, daily stressors, mental health, end of life, pain, etc. Recent studies have shown that engaging in the arts has an effect on multiple physiological and neural systems within the human body. Art can help heal the body, mind, and spirit. It was fascinating learning about the different types of art, the programs out there that are offering a type of art therapy, and especially, the ways our brains work when we are actively engaging in these activities.
Overall, it's an incredible read! I highly recommend it if you enjoy reading about art, mental health, healthcare/medicine, and neurology. A new favorite!”
“A useful guide to the science behind why the arts are fundamental to our physical and emotional health. Magsamen, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Ross, a vice president of design at Google, introduce readers to an emerging scientific field known as neuroaesthetics, using fascinating case studies to demonstrate how the arts have lasting benefits for our mental and physical health. In fact, approaching everyday life with an “aesthetic mindset” can change our very physiology, literally rewiring our brains. Chronic pain, for example, can be managed by dance, while those who “engage in arts and cultural activities have a lower risk of developing chronic pain as they age.” The authors also show how new parents recovering from postpartum depression feel better faster by the simple act of humming. Perhaps most shockingly, “people who engage in the arts every few months, such as going to the theatre or to a museum, have a 31 percent lower risk of dying early when compared with those who don’t.” Alongside the case studies, Magsamen and Ross present many accessible methods to bring the arts into your life, showing readers how to create a habit of participating in the arts just as you would follow a workout schedule. They analyze a variety of artistic mediums that provide benefits for the brain, including poetry, music, painting, and even doodling. “Art and science together are potent medicine,” they write, “capable of radically transforming our physical health.” From young children to adults with Alzheimer’s, the arts can improve and even extend our lives. This fascinating account of the science behind this phenomenon will inspire readers to establish their own concrete plans to incorporate as much art into their lives as possible. Regularly engaging with the arts can make you live longer, and this absorbing book explains how.”