How Art Can Help Treat Dementia And Trauma

11:56 minutes

an artistic representation of a profile of a woman - her silhouette is made of streaks of color swirling outward from her mind
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podcast album art that says universe of art, from science friday and wnyc studios. the background is an abstract ethereal painting that looks like a nebula or galaxy with swirling blue and purple clouds. a glowing abstract orb is at the centerThis interview originally appeared on “Universe Of Art,” a new podcast from Science Friday that focuses on artists who use science to take their creations to the next level. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

We might intrinsically know that engaging with and making art is good for us in some way. But now, scientists have much more evidence to support this, thanks in part to a relatively new field called neuroaesthetics, which studies the effects that artistic experiences have on the brain. 

A new book called Your Brain On Art: How The Arts Transform Us, dives into that research, and it turns out the benefits of the arts go far beyond elevating everyday life; they’re now being used as part of healthcare treatments to address conditions like dementia and trauma.

Universe of Art host D. Peterschmidt sits down with the authors of the book, Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at the Pederson Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Ivy Ross, vice president of design for hardware products at Google, to talk about what we can learn from neuroaesthetic studies, the benefits of a daily arts practice, and the kinds of art they both like making. 

Read an excerpt from Your Brain On Art.

Listen to the Podcast

How do we use art to process the world around us in ways that science can’t? How are illustrators using their skills to help us understand nature’s most unusual creatures? Hosted by SciFri producer and art nerd D. Peterschmidt, Universe of Art brings you conversations with artists who use science to bring their creations to the next level. Listen to previous episodes:

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Segment Guests

Susan Magsamen

Susan Magsamen is executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab in the Pederson Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ivy Ross

Ivy Ross is Vice President of Design for Hardware Products at Google in San Francisco, California.

Segment Transcript


IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I think that most of us feel that engaging with and making art is good for you in some way. Well, science is all about testing out our assumptions. And now scientists have much more evidence to support this, thanks in part to a relatively new field called neuroaesthetics, which studies the effects that artistic experiences have on the brain.

A new book called Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us dives into that research. And it turns out the benefits of the arts go far beyond elevating everyday life. The arts are now being used as part of health care treatments to address conditions like dementia and trauma.

I’d like to bring you a conversation with the authors of the book– Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts and Mind Lab at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute– that’s at Johns Hopkins University, and Ivy Ross, vice president of design for hardware at Google. It’s from our new podcast Universe of Art, hosted by Science Friday producer D Peterschmidt. If you like your science with a side of art, we think you’ll love Universe of Art check it out wherever you listen to podcasts. Now here’s D talking to the authors of Your Brain on Art.

D PETERSCHMIDT: 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” is a great word. 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.

IVY ROSS: And in the beginning, like in tribal times– and 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 gives 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 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 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. 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 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 that to have these benefits from it, I need to produce, like, a 10 foot tall oil painting every day or something like that.

IVY ROSS: 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 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, he’d go home and he was able to not take the trauma home with him.

And he’s now going to other firehouses, getting the firemen to do some of these art practices. And so these are people that actually, in most cases, have not had any arts training. But just the act of expressing what’s inside through these different varieties 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.

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 very powerful work. And it also actually extends to the family, because then the family is able to understand what’s been happening with their loved one where they hadn’t been able to express it before.

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.


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 turned 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 and 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 a meeting when someone is amplified, their stress levels, and needs to be brought down.

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.


Well I’ve never had someone play tuning forks during an interview before. So I think that should be a more normal part of the process.

IVY ROSS: You should start every interview.

D PETERSCHMIDT: That’s how I’ll 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.

IRA FLATOW: That was D Peterschmidt, host of the new Science Friday podcast Universe of Art, talking with the authors of the book Your Brain on Art. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About D. Peterschmidt

D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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