Art Is Good For You

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”―Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

This quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s 2005 biography sums up the message of Your Brain on Art in a clear and compelling way. Author Susan Magsamen is the founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine where she also teaches. Her co-author Ivy Ross is Vice President of Design for the Hardware Product Area at Google

I didn’t know what to expect from this Amazon 2023 Best Book pick and New York Times bestseller.  But I hoped that it might address matters I occasionally obsess about—interests nurtured by having studied and worked in the field of psychology, plus a year of art classes and drawing and painting since I was nine. Why and how does Art (the visual arts, music, performance, and conceptual art) affect us?

The book focuses on therapy and other practices using Art to heal and make life more fulfilling for people. Neuroscientists have researched and are still doing research in this field. And the results of their studies are inspiring. I don’t think this was a topic that attracted a lot of attention during my grad school days decades ago.

To me, the book’s most important takeaway is this:  Art is good for you. It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented you are. What matters is that you’re engaged in some form of Art. And engagement doesn’t just mean creating, but also appreciating. Or as the book says: having an aesthetic mindset. An aesthetic mindset has four key attributes:

 “1) a high level of curiosity; 2) a love of playful open-ended exploration; 3) a keen sense of awareness; and 4) a drive to engage in creative activities as a maker and/or beholder.”

The authors include a quiz to give you some insight into your aesthetic mindset. If you’re interested, you can take the quiz here: They don’t give a formula on how to up what they call your Aesthetic Mindset Index. But they offer much convincing information on what research has discovered about the effects of making art. For example, “making art for as little as forty-five minutes reduces the stress hormone cortisol, no matter your skill level or experience.”

In other words, art-making has direct measurable effects on our brains and bodies. And it’s not just being creative with your hands that can relieve stress. For instance, listening to sounds like those produced by striking Tibetan singing bowls reduces anxiety, fatigue, and stress and improves concentration.

 

Before I started reading this book, I’ve often asked myself what constitutes art. This book showed me my view is that of a Westerner’s. It’s a view which ignored the creative production in indigenous cultures particularly non-western ones. It brought back memories  of visits to the Quai Branly in Paris. (I’d recommend this to visitors to Paris curious about tribal and primitive art.) Anyway, the book convinced me that Art, like language, is built into man’s DNA. Still, like everything else, you must nurture what nature has given you.

If you like taking quizzes to understand yourself better, check out https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes. Their latest quiz is on curiosity.

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