Artistic expression is deeply ingrained in our biology and evolutionary development and is a crucial aspect of human existence. Breakthroughs in neuroaesthetics illustrate the transformative power of arts and aesthetics on neurobiology, impacting our physical and mental health, learning, and community building, writes Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross.
E.O. Wilson, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, once beautifully made the case that the arts are essential to the survival of the human species. Beginning with our ancestors circling together around a fire at the end of the day, he explained that they created wholly new forms of community, coming together to tell stories, sing, and dance.
Through these creative human expressions, morals and ethical values can be considered to have developed. There were celebrations and ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. Layers of meaning-making meant that a sense of belonging emerged between individuals, families and groups. It was through these repetitive creative acts, that humans forged strong social bonds, created trusting relationships and a collective feeling of transcendence emerged.
There are still over 5,000 indigenous tribes on the planet, many of whom don’t have a word for art because it is simply entrenched in how they live. And regardless of where we are around the globe, humanity still holds the lasting desire and core need to gather and commune together, sharing our voices in what we now describe, in our modern world, as artistic expression.
The arts and aesthetic experiences, in all their forms, have been used for many purposes – including self-expression, communication, collaboration, reflection, learning, healing and flourishing. In these moments of connection, something else happened as well. Our physiology and biology changed. Cortisol was reduced and dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin were increased. These powerful hormones and neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that enable our bodies to reduce stress, feel a sense of reward and happiness and create strong social bonds.
You can’t process all of the sensory stimuli that you are exposed to everyday, but the most salient information that enters your body has an unlimited capacity to change your biology and behavior.
Over the last 25 years, technology has enabled us to non-invasively get inside our head, and researchers are catching up with what we have, in a sense, always known: we are hard-wired for artistic expression, both biologically and evolutionarily. It is a quintessential element of the human condition – and essential for humanity's ability to thrive.
We let the world in through our senses and knowing how these senses work is key to understanding the transformative power of the arts and aesthetics. Smell, taste, vision, hearing and touch produce biological reactions of staggering speeds, integrating millions of sensory signals.
The foods you eat trigger 10,000 taste buds; when you hear music, sound waves cause your eardrum to vibrate and trigger thousands of small hair cells that each fire signals to your brain; you have over four million nerve endings in your skin; and over a lifetime, you will process over twenty-four million visual images, to name just a few extraordinary sensorial facts.
You can’t process all the sensory stimuli that you are exposed to every day, but the most salient information that enters your body has an unlimited capacity to change your biology and behavior. Your brain pays attention to what is important to you either because it is practical or emotionally relevant. This process is possible in part to an area of the brain researchers are now calling the salience network.
This salient sensory information ignites your brain’s neuroplasticity. Each of us are born with 100 billion neurons that connect at a synaptic level. You have quadrillions of these connections in your brain, creating endless neuropathways. These pathways underlie your body movements, emotions, memory – basically, everything you do. When you are making a memory or learning something you are actually making some synaptic connections stronger and some weaker through the saliency of your experiences.
Researchers are discovering endless ways the arts and aesthetics drastically change us on a neurobiological level, supporting our physical and mental health, learning, flourishing and community building. All of which are essential to our individual and societal survival.
Many of these discoveries have been made in the field of neuroaesthetics. A research area which brings together neuroscience, cognitive science, the arts, neurology, public health, psychology, and many other disciplines to create a highly interdisciplinary field. We now know that arts and aesthetic experiences alter a complex physiological network of interconnected neurological and biological systems including cognition, immune and endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, reward and motor systems – to name just a few.
Furthermore, arts and aesthetics are not simply a nice-to-have adjunct to human existence, they are essential to our very survival. The arts positively impact every area of your life. For instance, 20 minutes of art a day can be considered as beneficial as getting enough exercise and sleep. While just 45 minutes of practising an artistic pursuit reduces the stress hormone cortisol significantly. Playing music increases synapses and gray matter in the brain which helps supports cognitive skills, while just one or more artist experiences a month can extend your life by ten years. [DB1
We each have the agency to take actions that move us toward experiences that give us meaning and purpose and help us heal, learn and thrive. Our daily habits become our lives.
The power of the arts is accessible to anyone, anywhere and at any time, offering immediate dividends for individuals and communities. Researchers have debunked a huge myth, which is that you don’t have to be a skilled artist to have a significant impact.
In the realm where technology, arts, health, and science converge, we are beginning to envision a future characterized by the unprecedented expansion of immersive arts, which are dissolving the boundaries between art and viewers. The far-reaching implications of these immersive arts are not just limited to our aesthetic experiences but are poised to significantly impact health, education, and other sectors of society, paving the way for a more integrative and engaging future.
We are standing on the verge of a cultural shift in which the arts can deliver potent, accessible, proven health and well-being solutions to billions of people. However, since the industrial revolution, we have been optimizing for productivity, often pushing the arts aside and creative pursuits to the side or making them a luxury that only a few can afford to engage in.
Incorporating the arts and aesthetics in your life can be as simple as turning the aperture on a kaleidoscope. Changing your lens in small ways results in new ways to see the world. We each have the agency to take actions that move us toward experiences that give us meaning and purpose and help us heal, learn, and thrive. It is in this way that simply daily habits become our lives.
Anyone can develop an aesthetic mindset that puts you on the path to having deeply rewarding and life-sustaining arts and aesthetic experiences. Here are four basic attributes of this mindset to get you started.
1. Begin each day with a beginner’s mind and an openness for curiosity.
2. Move through your world with more playful exploration. In other words, holding off judging or critiquing. Just experiment and engage.
3. Open yourself up to all of the amazing sensory and aesthetic experiences around you. Light, color, scent, texture, touch. Feel your world.
4. Make more art – cook, draw, hum, dance, sing. And put yourself in places to behold the arts of others.