What we can learn from neuroesthetics – the study of how art changes the brain

Posted: 03/10/2023

Art therapy has been around for many years. Originally, art therapy emerged in the mid-twentieth century in Britain and America, and quickly began to be used in a range of health and mental health settings.

Practioners of art therapy and, more broadly, arts therapies, have long known that engaging with creative practices like painting, drawing, music, writing and drama, can have a positive impact on people’s mood.

However, it wasn’t until recently that scientists started to measure the impact that engaging in creative practices has on the brain. This area of study is called neuroesthetics (or neuroaesthetics).

But what is neuroesthetics?

In an article for The Conversation, professor and arts educator for over 20 years, Brittany Harker Martin describes it as follows:

Neuroesthetics uses brain imaging, brain wave technology and biofeedback to gather scientific evidence of how we respond to the arts. Through this, there is physical, scientific evidence that the arts engage the mind in novel ways, tap into our emotions in healthy ways and make us feel good.

And the evidence is quite comprehensive.

According to the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRH), arts therapy can lower stress and reduce cortisol levels, allow people to enter a state of mindfulness or flow, help people to process difficult emotions and trauma and raise serotonin levels. They note:

There is increasing evidence in rehabilitation medicine and the field of neuroscience that art enhances brain function by impacting brain wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system. These benefits don’t just come from making art, they also occur by experiencing art. Observing art can stimulate the creation of new neural pathways and ways of thinking.

ACRH also note that there is also emerging evidence that engaging with the arts can increase brain plasticity.

Any type of creative expression allows you to imagine new ways to communicate and engage with the world, as well as engages the brain’s neuroplasticity, helping patients recover from things like traumatic brain injuries or stroke.

In an article on Professor Sharon Naismith from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre who recently ran a research project in which she collaborated with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) to do a three-year research study called Artful to measure how art and creativity can be used to promote brain neuroplasticity in people with dementia, the author says:

Our understanding of how the brain works has progressed rapidly in the past decade. Academic literature used to depict brain activity as static, but thanks to imaging technology, we have the capacity see how the brain operates in real-time and visualise the intricate connections between different brain regions that inform how we think and behave.

Continued research in this area has indicated that, faced with different situations, our brains will continue to change and respond to environmental activity throughout our lives. This concept is called neuroplasticity – and when mixed with art engagement, can be incredibly beneficial for mental wellbeing.

ConnectAbility Australia, an organisation that supports people with significant disabilities, describe the ways in which arts therapies can increase neuroplasticity:

The feeling and activity generated through producing art inspires a profound inner change in our clients that is entirely their own work and choice, making it a very special and valuable experience for them. It also makes neuroplastic change far more likely, as it is driven by the clients’ own motivation and engagement.

The stronger the impression an activity makes on the brain, the more likely it will be to cement neuroplastic change. The inclusion of family, friends or support networks introduces an external factor, to lend support and confirmation to the growing internal changes.

In their recent book, Your brain on art: how the arts transform us, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross summarise their research by providing a series of real-life examples of how art therapies are being used around the world:

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…All because of advances in neuroaesthetics. (pp.x-xi)

Many of us who work in human services and educational spaces use different art forms in our work with people, as we understand the power of the arts as therapeutic tools. We also see how enriching and hopeful it can be to engage people in sensory and tactile activities when they are working through challenging life experiences.

But now we increasingly have scientific evidence to support the use of these approaches in terms of improving mental health, potentially increasing brain plasticity, increasing rates of healing, reducing anxiety and building connection and hope.

How have you used arts or creative activities in your work with people? What results did you see? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.

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