This Is Your Brain on Art

When I taught at an arts camp two years ago, just as the world was opening up after the pandemic isolation, I saw that many of the teens in my classes were … lost. They were just getting back to the world, seeing people again, navigating a universe that had been at a standstill for more than a year. Most of them had been out of school for a year, interacting only virtually. They had to learn to interact with one another and with the environment again. Many were sad and depressed as a result. One young woman was in three of my classes, her fear and sadness often masked by defiance, anger and sullenness. When she interacted at all, it was usually with a grunt or eyeroll, and when she did speak it was fluent sarcasm.

Knowing that music is the universal language of creativity, I would play different kinds of music during the classes so that kids could focus on their work, or be inspired or calmed. It became a kind of game, during which I included international music genres, relaxation and solfeggio tracks, and songs that were my soundtrack when I was their age, explaining the troubled beginnings of James Taylor, the real meaning behind “You’re so Vain,” (complete with showing them “then and now” pictures of Warren Beatty – the “now” pictures didn’t convince them that he was worth pining over, but they got it after I showed “then”), and the inner workings of the Beach Boys, including the troubled genius of Brian Wilson. After the first few classes I would ask for “requests,” and gratefully accepted the advice: “I wouldn’t play that one if I were you – listen to the words …” when offered. One day my aforementioned depressed student requested that I play Mötley Crüe – I’m pretty sure it was a challenge. But, hey, what the heck, at least the songs were familiar, and I understood the words, and who doesn’t love a bit of anarchy in their lives. Afterward, I heard my student characterize that class as “the best day of my life.” Which, of course, made it one of my memorably satisfying days as well. Mission accomplished, all because of music and art.

If you read my blogs or newsletters, or are aware of my alter ego, “Twin Flame Arts,” you know me as an artist and a Therapeutic Art Life Coach as well as a medium. I have always loved engaging in all sorts of artistic pursuits – music, visual arts (glass art, drawing, painting, fiber arts, ceramics, etc.), writing, dance, theater – every type of artistic endeavor you can imagine, I’ve probably done at some point in my life. As I wound through the twists and turns of my life path, art was a welcome constant, and meant so much to me as life took me from trauma, to happiness, to the depths of despair, to contentment. It was a touchstone that kept me sane (though just barely at times) and brought me hope and joy at the times when I felt as lost as my art camp students.

Of all the technological advances through the ages, one thing has remained unchanged – art has always been a part of our lives as human beings. In fact, scientists are aware that cave art images predate language by some 100,000 years. The combination of sound plus image equals language – all higher brain functions that came, as it turns out, quite early in our development as a species (frequently pointed to as how homo sapiens became the “dominant” branch, despite being physically somewhat willowy when compared with our more sturdy ancestors/neighbors).

A recent book (I have no connection to this book, nor do I receive any compensation for mentioning it, nor have I read it yet – though I have heard enough wonderful things about it that I ordered it!), Your Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, explores the connections between all types of art and brain development and functioning. They seek to explore how “engagement with the arts rewires neural circuitry and creates new pathways through the process of neuroplasticity.” In other words, how art physically changes the brain so that it functions better, improving our lives in the process. Yes, physically changes the brain. This emerging interdisciplinary study is called Neuroarts. Also called Neuroasthetics, Neuroarts recognizes that although art has long been considered the domain of the heart, its transporting effects start in the brain, where intricate systems perceive and interpret it with dazzling speed. It uses brain-imaging and other tools of neuroscience to probe the relationship between art and the brain.

One finding is that the connection aspect of live artistic events – even deep introverts like me often love to go to concerts, plays, museums and the like (as long as they don’t last too long!) – is a key component of teaching our brains how to process and emulate emotion and the movement of our surroundings. We teach one another how to feel through shared emotional experiences, such as those brought on by viewing all forms of art together. I love movies, art exhibits and all kinds of live performances, and can remember many instances of sitting in an audience at the end of an artistic event silently, with bated breath, along with the others in the group, my head swimming as we processed the powerful or poignant or shocking emotions of what we just witnessed together. One striking example was when I saw “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on stage – I would estimate that the audience sat in stunned silence for a good 90 seconds before moving a muscle or even breathing, then silently picked up and tried to figure out how we would drive home under the influence of that ending. Similarly, but so much less sublime, was the emptying of theaters at the end of “Avengers- Infinity War,” which left the streets teeming with hundreds of traumatized nerds like me, too shocked to think clearly, mourning all those people, including characters we had loved for years – (spoiler alert) reduced to dust in the wind. The examples of this phenomenon are countless. It can mirror the collective emotion we feel when we witness genuine trauma together – a bombing, a shooting, an accident. The visceral realness of the moment is the same, whether presented as an artistic rendering or happening in real time. And the same is true when we witness love or connection or triumph on a screen or stage – we’re all there, feeling those emotions together.

When people from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences share a moment of joy or sorrow or consternation or awe together – for a few brief moments before getting up and going back to our lives; we are one. Literally. Many scientists believe we map other people’s actions during, say, a dance performance, into our own somatosensory system, which conveys sensation through the brain and body and helps us feel the emotions we perceive in others as if they are our own. This is why we can leave a performance feeling physically and emotionally moved, or drained, or angry, or elated, or shaken. We actually feel the feelings – empathically – of the people we’re watching on the screen or stage, or even viewing in paintings, photos and other visual arts, or hearing at a concert or through our earbuds. I can’t be the only one who cries when I hear “that song,” or watch that movie, or – let’s face it – that commercial, no matter how many times. We put ourselves in the place of those who are acting or singing or capturing those moments. We become the art we see and hear, truly and physically.

At a time when arts, humanities and physical education classes (did anyone else learn to dance the bossa nova, teton mountain stomp and lindy hop in middle school gym class??) are under fire in our public schools as “unnecessary,” we need, ironically, to look more closely at what our ancestors have known for generations – art is not just an add-on, touchy-feely elective that we can throw away to add classes that some people see as more productive (in the sense of encouraging kids to make career choices in which they may make more money, or, sadly, just so that they can pass a momentary mandatory exam). Art doesn’t just imitate life, it is life. It’s not just part of our culture, it’s part of us.The loss of art would actually pose a threat to the health and well being of our future. If we stop encouraging creativity and inventiveness (in a non-scientific as well as a scientific way), we stop growing. A society full of only lawyers, bankers and stockbrokers, IT professionals, doctors and businesspeople to the exclusion of the dreamers, creators and performers would be a colorless world. Thankfully, along with those trying to dismantle our support for the arts, there are those who see the benefits of cultivating and nurturing them. Protecting our access to and development of the arts must be seen as essential rather than peripheral – a constant struggle in a country built upon the principal of “capitalistic gains at all costs.”

So what will you commit to do to bring more art into your life? Some ideas – read more fiction, take an art class, listen to a new music genre, see an avant-garde movie, spend a day in a museum, watch a livestream ballet or opera performance in a movie theater (this is a thing now !), donate to arts organizations – (I’m currently raising funds for a non-profit as part of an artists’ retreat project) get as much creativity into your brain as you can stand. It will definitely change your brain (and your life!) for the better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *