The Neuroaesthetic Age

type - big idea
Big Idea
Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross argue in Your Brain on Art that the science behind art can help us to reinvigorate the spaces around us with new kinds of happiness and awe.

Neurochemical hits

Many of us will have heard the old adage – originally a quote from English playwright William Congreve’s 1697 play, The Mourning Bride – that ‘Musick has charms to soothe the savage Breast.

But according to Your Brain on Art authors, Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, when considered within the burgeoning field of neuroaesthetics, the arts have provable restorative powers that go beyond their more recognisable attributes to calm and soothe our troubled souls.

As Magsamen explains: ‘The arts trigger the release of neurochemicals, hormones and endorphins that offer you an emotional release. When you experience virtual reality, read poetry or fiction, see a film, listen to a piece of music or dance you are biologically changed. There is a neurochemical exchange that can lead to what Aristotle called catharsis, or a release of emotion that leaves you more connected to yourself and others afterwards.

This happens because the chemicals ebbing and flowing through our brain and nervous system – including serotonin (wellbeing), dopamine (elation), endorphins (reduced pain), oxytocin (happiness), cortisol (stress) and nitric oxide (enhanced vascular flow) – are triggered or reduced as different parts of our brain respond to particular movements, colours, shapes, rhythms, smells or textures. Ross, as she tells it, has even carried a tuning fork in her bag because the resonant sounds of the notes C and G, when combined, can trigger oxytocin and truly soothe those savage breasts.

Published by:

3 April 2023

Author: Martin Raymond

Image: Little Island, US


A Space for Being by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, in collaboration with Google, Italy

The curative science of art

But before you think Magsamen and Ross are tie-dye hippy sorts with a penchant for vibrating crystals, tuning forks and cross-legged lotus postures, their collective CVs are worth a tour around, to understand the power of the case they are laying out for the arts to be regarded as a viable and scientifically robust way to improve and cure many of those illnesses we now tackle with variations on the very chemicals art releases into our bodies.

Magsamen is the founder of the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), at the Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics, a pioneering initiative at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School for Medicine, while Ross, a recent judge on our Futures 100 Innovators Award, is the vice-president for the hardware product area at Google, as well as being ranked in Fast Company’s top 10 list of the 100 Most Creative People In Business. So, both come from hard-nosed science, research and innovation backgroundsThey have tackled their subject in a scientific way, taking a wholly evidence-based position on how art can tackle very physical conditions, as well as those emotional maladies we tend to bracket it with.

‘The arts trigger the release of neurochemicals, hormones and endorphins that offer you an emotional release.’
Susan Magsamen, co-author, Your Brain on Art

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