Art—like exercise and a healthy diet—is essential to human health and well-being. Now, the interdisciplinary field of neuroarts, a shorthand term for neuroaesthetics,is giving us the rigorous scientific foundation that explains why.
Neuroarts rests at the crossroads of science, technology, and the arts. It is the place where a growing body of research-based knowledge about how the human brain responds to the experience of art is stored. And it is the springboard for interventions and programs that translate that knowledge into practice in clinics, homes, workplaces, and communities, all in service to individual and collective well-being.
Artists have long had an intuitive understanding of the power of creative activity. Across time, in moments of personal and planetary stress, in rural and urban settings around the globe, people have sought artistic outlets to prevent or treat illness, express joy, soothe fear, ease grief, and build community. The oldest archeological discoveries reveal the longstanding human pursuit of self-expression and the most recent pandemic reminds us again that people turn to art in times of need.
Science has documented the power of arts to shape our biology, measurably changing the brain and body and promoting health and well-being.
What the Science Reveals
Because the brain is agile, exposure to arts of all kinds fosters interconnectivity across a vast and complex network populated by hundreds of billions of neurons, influencing how we process and perceive creative experiences. The brain systems that engage with reward, motor activity, perception, and the senses are stimulated by art in ways unmatched by anything else.
In recent years, new tools and technology have emerged to reveal and measure the complex neural mechanisms that are involved. Revolutionary advances in imaging capacities, portable devices, and wearable sensors allow us to observe how the brain changes, nanosecond by nanosecond, in response to stimuli. They help us map what happens as we take in the world through the portals of sound, sight, scent, touch, and taste.
The Evidence for Arts as Medicine
That science reveals that art can work hand in hand with traditional medicine to improve mobility, memory, and speech; relieve pain and the after-effects of trauma; enhance mental health and learning outcomes; build resilience; and prevent disease.1,2,3 Beyond its value for individuals, the arts can engage stakeholders collectively in pursuit of stronger, more equitable, and more resilient communities.4,5,6,7,8
Arts interventions can lower the burden and cost of chronic and degenerative diseases, mental health challenges, addiction, and trauma.
Different art forms engage the brain in different ways, as this small sample of findings suggests:
- Music improves cognitive function in people with dementia,9 reduces the anxiety associated with cancer,10 relieves symptoms of trauma,11,12 and improves motor coordination.13,14
- Poetry helps patients and health professionals deal with end-of-life challenges17 while reading fiction improves the capacity for compassion.18
- Architecture, interior design, and urban planning promote healing in the clinic,19,20,21,22 manage stress among health providers,23,24 enhance workplace wellness,25,26,27 and increase physical activity in the community.28
For more evidence, see Resources.
The World Health Organization “finds evidence of the contribution of the arts to the promotion of good health and the prevention of a range of mental and physical health conditions, as well as the treatment or management of acute and chronic conditions arising across the life-course.” 29
Building on Knowledge and Learning More
Neuroarts provides the scientific basis for artistic traditions that date back through the millennia and offers a framework for translating contemporary scholarship into practice. With the help of technology, we increasingly understand the mechanisms through which art changes the brain, biology, and behavior and drives us towards health and well-being.
But there is much more to learn so that we can develop and build on the science with rigor, including the best ways to deliver art, the optimal dose and duration of the therapy, and how to tailor it to individual experiences, opportunities, and challenges. The field is at an inflection point, offering the hope of tackling some of society’s most intractable problems. Whether through dance, song, writing, or painting, approached either as maker or beholder, health and well-being is enhanced by expressions of self, experience, imagination, and creativity. Neuroarts helps us harness and mobilize these powerful biological forces and realize the promise of art.
1. World Health Organization. (2019). Health evidence network synthesis report: What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329834/9789289054553-eng.pdf
3. Center for Arts in Medicine. https://arts.ufl.edu/academics/center-for-arts-in-medicine
4. Sonke, J., Golden, T., Francois, S., et al. (2019, September). Creating healthy communities through cross-sector collaboration. https://arts.ufl.edu/site/assets/files/168769/uf_chc_whitepaper_interactiv_single.pdf
5. Rose, K., Daniel, M. H., & Liu, J. (2017). Creating change through arts, culture and equitable development: A policy and practice primer. https://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/report_arts_culture_equitable-development.pdf
9. Devere, R. (2017, June). Music and dementia: An overview. Practical Neurology. https://practicalneurology.com/articles/2017-june/music-and-dementia-an-overview
10. Popkin, K. (2017, July). Music therapy: Relevance in oncology. The ASCO Post. https://www.ascopost.com/issues/july-25-2017/music-therapy-relevance-in-oncology/
11. Landis-Shack N, Heinz AJ, Bonn-Miller MO. (2017). Music therapy for posttraumatic stress in adults: A theoretical review. Psychomusicology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5744879/
12. Sorensen M. (2015). The neurology of music for post-traumatic-stress disorder treatment: A theoretical approach for social work implications. https://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1526&context=msw_papers
13. Thaut, M. H., & McIntosh, G. C. (2014, April). Neurological music therapy in stroke rehabilitation. Stroke Rehabilitation. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40141-014-0049-y
14. Thaut, M. H. (2015). The discovery of human auditory-motor entrainment and its role in the development of neurologic music therapy. Progressive Brain Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25725919
15. Shanahan, J., Morris, M. E., & Bhriain, O. N. (2015, January). Dance for people with Parkinson disease: What is the evidence telling us? Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25223491
16. Karkou, V., Aithal, S., Zubata, A., & Meekums, B. (2019, May 3). Effectiveness of dance movement therapy in the treatment of adults with depression: A systematic review with meta-analyses. Frontiers of Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00936/full
17. Davies, E. A. (2018, September). Why we need more poetry in palliative care. British Medical Journal Supportive Palliative Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6104682/
18. Dodell-Feder, D. & Tamir, D. I. (2018). Fiction reading has a small positive impact on social cognition: A meta-analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000395
19. Heller, C. (2018, October 15). How the architecture of hospitals affects health outcomes. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/10/how-the-architecture-of-hospitals-affects-health-outcomes
20. Huisman, E. R. C. M., Morales, E., van Hoof, J., & Kort, H. S. M. (2012, December). Healing environment: A review of the impact of physical environmental factors on users. Building and Environment.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360132312001758
23. Connellian, K., Gaardboe, M., Riggs, D., et al. (2013). Stressed spaces: Mental health and architecture. Health Environments Research & Design. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257310003_Stressed_Spaces_Mental_Health_and_Architecture
25. Colenberg, S. (2019, December 24). The relationship between interior office space and employee health and well-being—a literature review. Building Research and Information. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09613218.2019.1710098
26. Timm, S., Gray, W. A., & Curtis, T. (2018, July 4). Designing for health: How the physical environment plays a role in workplace wellness. American Journal of Health Promotion. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0890117118779463b
28. Giles-Corti, B. F., Foster, S., Koohsari, J., et al. (2014). The influence of urban design and planning on physical activity. In Routledge Handbook of Planning for Health and Well-Being. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270048502_The_Influence_of_Urban_Design_and_Planning_on_Physical_Activity
29. World Health Organization. (2019). Health evidence network synthesis report: What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329834/9789289054553-eng.pdf