[MUSIC PLAYING] IVY ROSS: These are people that absolutely have not had any arts training, but just the act of expressing what's inside through these different variety of arts is what helps alleviate some of that trauma immediately.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Hi. Welcome to Universe of Art, a podcast from Science Friday in WNYC Studios about artists who use science to take their work to the next level. I'm Science Friday producer D. Peterschmidt.
So a couple of weeks ago, I started this 100 days Arts Practice where I set aside an hour a day to write a short piece of music for 100 days. I'm doing it with a group of friends who are all making stuff on their own mediums, things like short pieces of writing or sketches of the animals outside their house, things like that. And then every day we post what we've all made in a shared Discord server.
The point isn't to make super polished stuff. It's more about consistency. Almost like exercising a muscle. And also, it's really about the community aspect. And I was a little apprehensive about the whole thing before we started.
I was worried that I wouldn't have the energy to sustain doing something like this every day. But I'm two weeks in now and I'm surprised by how quickly the time goes by every day and how good I feel afterwards. It's honestly not that dissimilar to the feeling you get after stretching or getting some physical activity in. And I also really love seeing what everyone makes every day.
It's like the most ideal personal social media feed. And around the time this started, I was reading the book that's the subject of today's episode. It's called "Your Brain on Art, How the Arts Transform Us". And it's all about the psychological benefits our brains experience when we engage with or make art, whether you're creating something every day or using it as a part of treatment for something like dementia or trauma.
I talked with the authors of that book, Susan Magsamen, Executive Director of the International Arts and Mind Lab at the Peterson Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Ivy Ross, Vice President of Design for Hardware at Google, about what they learned while writing the book. We talk about the field of neuroaesthetics and how exposure to art is more necessary to our physical and mental health than we might think. They also both prepared a fun little treat at the end.
Anyway, here's that conversation. Enjoy. So to start off, a lot of research in this book is based on a relatively new field called neuroaesthetics. Susan, can you explain what that is?
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: Sure. So neuroaesthetics, it's a great word, right? It's like a $100 bill word. And it is really simply the study of how the arts and aesthetic experiences measurably change the brain, body, and behavior. And I think importantly, how this knowledge is translated into specific practices that advance our health and well-being.
It's only been in the last 20 years that advances in technology have really enabled us to get inside our heads to study the extraordinary ways that the arts impact us. I think the evolutionary biologist E.O Wilson really was on to this when he started to understand the ways that humans really evolved. These instincts to make and create and observe creative self-expression were really at the root of humanity's exorbitant growth.
IVY ROSS: And in the beginning, like in tribal times, and still some tribes still exist today, but they didn't even have a word for art because it was their culture. The way they lived was through the arts-- singing, dancing, storytelling, drawing. And then at a certain point, we decided to optimize for productivity right after the Industrial Revolution and push the arts aside as nice to have or not to be engaged in unless it was something you were going to make a profession in or you thought you were good at.
And we thought this optimization for productivity would make us happy as a society. And I think the experiment has failed. And it's time we bring them back and understand the role they have in our lives. And it's not either, or. It's and, both. We need productivity and we need the arts.
For example, we learned by doing this book that actually when you're doodling your memory is better, you'll retain information, and your focus is better. So all those times when someone would give you a dirty look in a meeting because you're doodling and they think you're not paying attention, it's actually allowing you to focus better.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, it's funny a lot of my friends are illustrators and I can't count how many times we've hung out and they're just kind of doodling or drawing away. We're having like really deep conversations and it really doesn't get in the way.
IVY ROSS: Yeah, in fact, now we know that it actually enhances the retention of that information.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. So that's kind of on the recreational side. Both of you talk about research in the book about using the arts in health care and in trauma treatment. Can you talk about some of the research there?
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: Sure. In health care, we know that singing helps people with dementia recall and reconnect with family. It also improves cognition and quality of life. We see dance helping people with Parkinson's disease, stroke, and other motor-based challenges, improve their gait, their cognition, their sleep, and their mood.
There's some fabulous work happening right now at MIT with light and sound that's literally altering the progression of dementia. Chronic pain is being managed by dance and interestingly by virtual reality. Moms with postpartum depression are using singing and humming to feel better faster.
One thing that's worth noting is that artists have always intuitively understood the value of the arts. And I think what the book is doing is helping to show the many ways of knowing and evidence. So what we're trying to do is explain how evidence is formed. And I think some of the neurobiological evidence is new and compelling. And I think starts to make the case and validates some of the things that we have intuitively known.
IVY ROSS: And one of the most important things here is that you do not have to be good at the art. And that has been such a relief to many people who have written to us after reading the book that said thank you for giving me permission to engage in the arts even though I don't feel I'm good at it. Because you have to take that judgment out of the equation, because it's the act of doing the art without judgment, which is really self-expression.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Right. I think when some people hear like, oh, the arts are really good for you to engage with, but also make. And I think maybe some people are like, oh, I'm not an artist. You know, I wasn't trained or anything like that. I haven't spent a lot of time practicing.
I think people imagine it's like, oh, to have these benefits from it, I need to produce a 10 foot tall oil painting every day.
IVY ROSS: Absolutely, not. Absolutely, not. We interviewed a woman who started something called Art to Ashes. And she was taking frontline firemen out of blazing fires who would go home to their families with trauma held within from that day's work and gave them a paintbrush and a Canvas and just said start just throwing that paint on the Canvas. And we interviewed a fireman. He found that he would do that as soon as he would come out of a blazing fire, go home, and he was able to not take the trauma home with him.
And he's now going to other fire houses, getting the firemen to do some of these art practices. And so these are people that absolutely, in most cases, have not had any arts training, but just the act of expressing what's inside through these different variety of arts is what helps alleviate some of that trauma immediately.
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: And firefighters and first responders don't see themselves as post-traumatic stress. They're constantly in these environments that are creating ongoing stress. So they see it as a practice. Some of them weld. Some of them are doing woodworking. Other first responders are doodling, doing expressive writing.
So it's also interesting to see what art forms help different people respond to those kinds of traumas and releasing some of that pent up information that's held so deeply in the body.
IVY ROSS: So this idea that 20 minutes of art a day can really accelerate your health and well-being just like science has proven that exercise. We need 20 or 30 minutes a day. This is no different.
D PETERSCHMIDT: We're going to take a short break. And we'll be right back to talk more about the book "Your Brain on Art".
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: You were talking about how does somebody who's never made art approach art? And one interesting story is with a group in the military called Creative Forces. And these are active military and veterans who have had PTSD and trauma. And when you have trauma, sometimes the part of the brain called the Broca region literally shuts down so you are not able to find words for what has happened to you.
And so you're holding it and it's triggering and you're reliving it. And at Walter Reed, and now across the country, they're literally making masks. And these masks allow them to share symbol and metaphor and create a visual story. These masks allow you to get this information out in a visual way. And then they come back working with creative arts therapists and start to create a narrative around what's happened to them and how they feel. And they're able to continue to heal and release that knowledge.
And it's been really very powerful work. And it also actually extends to the family. Because in the family, they're able to understand what's been happening with their loved one where they hadn't been able to express it before.
IVY ROSS: Susan, you may want to share the research on music, which is fascinating.
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: Yeah, at the University of Southern California, there's a fantastic researcher named Assal Habibi. And Assal studies the brains of young musicians that are part of the Youth Orchestra in Los Angeles. And in a 5-year longitudinal study, she studied 20 children who were learning to read music and play a musical instrument beginning at age 6. And what she found was that musical training changed brain structure.
That's a huge thing that it literally changed the structure. But she also found that musical training boosts engagement in brain networks that are responsible for things like decision-making, executive function, and intellectual tasks. And she saw that by music training, it accelerated brain maturity in areas that are associated with sound processing, right? That makes sense. But also language development, speech perception, and reading skills.
And she saw that regions of the brain that were activated included things like motor, auditory, and visual systems, but also enhanced memory, spatial reasoning, and literary skills. So you know that the Holy Grail of learning is transfer. So when you're building these highly complex systems that then can transfer into other parts of your life, it's really a win. A major win for students, but also for their lifelong learning.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, well, I believe you've both brought something to share with our listeners. Susan, you're a poet and you have a poem of yours to read?
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: I like to say that I write poetry, which I think is different than being a poet. But, yeah.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Fair enough.
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: So my son and I over COVID decided that every couple of days we would write a piece of poetry in nature and we'd share it with each other. So this is a piece I wrote early in the pandemic, and it's called Coming Back. "We planted a beautiful new willow tree on the side of the pond. Its shiny leaves glistening in the sun. But in only two days, it seemed to be done. Overnight, the branches turn gray and every leaf began to stray. One-by-one they fell to the Earth. I hope it didn't hurt.
We watered her every day, whispering what can we say? Please grow back and fill your leggy tendrils. She must have heard our hopes and thoughts, because she began to sprout little green leaves where there were none. A million of them for everyone. And while she is still tender, we love the way her leaves are filled with splendor."
D PETERSCHMIDT: That was beautiful. Thank you.
IVY ROSS: Yeah, lovely. And so I've been studying sound in my vibration for about 40 years and played the drums as a kid and could not bring my drum set here to work to play for you. But I've been leading design departments in corporations most of my life. And there are times when I carry my tuning forks with me in my backpack and will pull them out in the meeting when someone has amplified their stress levels and kind of needs to be brought down.
Because sound, now, there's been some studies about just sound, not music, can release nitric oxide in your body, which adds to this relaxation effect. So I'm going to try and hit these two tuning forks and see how it sounds in the microphone. But let's see.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Oh my God, there we go. Wow. I've never-- yeah, had someone play tuning fork during an interview before. So I think that should be like a more normal part of the process.
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: You should start every interview.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Let's all end every interview from now on. Well, Susan and Ivy, thank you both so much for taking the time. And thank you for the book.
IVY ROSS: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for talking to us about it.
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: Really a pleasure.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross are the authors of the book "Your Brain on Art, How the Arts Transform Us." If you'd like to read an excerpt from the book, you can head to sciencefriday.com/artbrain.
Universe of Art is hosted and produced by me, D. Peterschmidt and I also wrote the theme music. Charles Bergquist and John Dankosky provided production assistance. And our show art is illustrated by Abelle Hayford. And support for Science Friday's Science and Arts coverage comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Also, if you have an idea for a future episode of Universe of Art, send us an email or a voice memo to email@example.com. We'll be back in two weeks. See you.