Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is Susan Magsamen, a faculty member in the neurology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is the founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She is also the co-director of the Neuroarts Blueprint with Aspen Institute and the author of many books. Her latest book is called “Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us,” and just released today. Congratulations and welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Susan!
Susan Magsamen: [00:00:49] Thank you so much, Mindy. I am thrilled to be here and I am someone who practices what you preach. So thank you for having me.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:56] My pleasure. I’m so thrilled to make this connection. As we were talking about before I hit the record button, when I came across your work and found you on LinkedIn, I thought, how have I not come across Susan before? Because we have so many people, so many connections in common, including many of my former podcast guests. And there’s such an overlap between the work that you’re doing and my areas of interest that I was really surprised we hadn’t come across one another. Earlier, I learned about your work and heard for the first time those terms Neuro Arts or Neuroaesthetics from an NPR article that was posted on LinkedIn recently by music therapist Maegan Morrow and shout out to Maegan. She’s a former guest on the show and is the the therapist who used music therapy to help US Rep Gabby Giffords relearn how to speak after she was shot back in 2011. I believe the article that she posted was called Art and Music Therapy seemed to help with brain disorders. Scientists want to know why. I’ll link to the article in the show notes. And like I said, that was the first time I heard these terms neuro arts or neuroaesthetics, and was just really intrigued. So kicking things off for Susan, just tell us what is neuro arts or neuro aesthetics?
Susan Magsamen: [00:02:13] So it’s a big word, right? Neuroaesthetics And you’re like, What is that? What does that have to do with? But what I talk about with Neuroaesthetics is really simply that it’s the study of how the arts and aesthetic experiences measurably change the brain, body and behavior, and how this knowledge can be translated into specific practices that advance our health and our well-being. And I’ll also add that help us flourish and help us learn and can even help us build community. So I shorthand neuroaesthetics and I call it neuro arts. And it turns out that there is a whole field of study that’s really emerging over the last 20 years now that we can get inside our heads non-invasively to really understand how the brain changes on these extraordinary aesthetic experience pieces like art and music and sound and all of the other ways that we bring the world in through our senses.
Mindy Peterson: [00:03:08] I love that definition because it really does make it very accessible and easy to understand. And I’ll just point out, too, that when you talk about art and aesthetic experiences, that really encompasses a full spectrum of visual arts, performing arts, aromatherapy. I mean, there’s a huge amount of aesthetic experiences that you’re including in that overarching umbrella will of course be focusing a little bit more on music and sound just because that’s the focus of this podcast. But for for listeners who have interest in those other areas, there’s a whole lot of information related to those other arts and aesthetic experiences as well.
Susan Magsamen: [00:03:51] Thank you for, for offering that broader palette, only to say that one of the things that my co-author and I, Ivy Ross, talk about is that there’s an art for that and there’s so many art forms that are available to each of us, and there’s so many ways that we can engage in them. And I think that’s something that we haven’t really thought a lot about over the way that we live every day and how we think about the arts and use the arts. So I’m excited to talk about music and sound, but definitely a shout out. And you know, with technology there are art forms that are being birthed every day. There are new ways of integrating arts into our lives through all kinds of technological uses as well.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:31] Well, I love in your book how you point out that the arts and aesthetics offer emotional connection to the full range of human experience. And I just thought that was such an impactful line in your book that just is really precise and gets right to the the heart of the issue. You also talk quite a bit about how you are literally changed on a cellular level by aesthetics and. Your book, you say all stimuli that we encounter visual, auditory. I’m not sure if I’m saying this right so much. So somatosensory, gustatory, olfactory and others change the structure and function of cells within our brains and bodies. They do so in fundamental ways altering cell cycle proliferation, viability and binding of hormones, which just kind of blows my mind. But talk to us a little bit about what some of those benefits and results are that come from understanding the science of the arts. Sure.
Susan Magsamen: [00:05:34] I know it’s sort of extraordinary. One of the things that we found in in researching and writing the book was this very specific way that the arts impact our brains and bodies. And this idea of neuroplasticity, I think is a really important place to start. You know, we bring the world in through our senses. You know, we talk about five senses, but researchers are now discovering that we may have as many as 50 senses that are in play all the time in how we negotiate and navigate the world. So think about all this information that’s coming in. What we’re born with over 100 billion neurons, and those neurons connect to each other through synapses that connect them, which create quadrillions of neural pathways over over our life. And so the way that those grow is by the kinds of inputs and the kinds of experiences that we have. So imagine the way that the arts and aesthetic experiences can really help to enhance those neural pathways that lay the foundation for all the things we do, the way we move, the way we think, the way we learn, the way we create. And so this work around neuroplasticity is so vital. And when you think about something like music. Music is something that we bring in through our auditory sensory system for the most part. And we know that the vibrations and the sensations of sound alter our body dramatically.
Susan Magsamen: [00:07:03] We also know that the limbic system is engaged when we’re listening to music and art, as is the hippocampus. And so we lay down these memories with sound and music from the time we’re born, but we also start to categorize those in an autobiographical way. So very we talk about the songbooks of our lives. Those memories are initially brought in and and, and stored in our hippocampus, but then they distribute throughout the cortex. So we are able to recall those kinds of memories throughout our lives for different triggers. And this idea of emotional depth and saliency I think is super important. You know, we can’t remember everything that we bring in. We can’t register everything that we bring in, but the range of human emotions that we feel all the time, from grief and sadness to joy and elation are things that sound and music really help us to solidify and consolidate and capture. So it’s pretty extraordinary. And you know, I’ll just say one other thing that because we are so transactional in our lives, I think sometimes we forget that this amazing superpower of emotional valence through sound and music is available to us all the time. And part of the goals of the book are to lift that up a bit more and to sort of help us see that these sensory experiences really allow us to live our fullest lives.
Mindy Peterson: [00:08:36] Yeah, well, you just mentioned a couple of concepts that come up regularly throughout the book and are kind of core concepts of the neuro arts. One is neuroplasticity and one is salience, which I’m much more familiar with the term neuroplasticity than salience. But you define that as something that is important to us, either practically or emotionally, something that stands out kind of relevant and practical. Is that how you would define salience, or do you want to elaborate any more on that?
Susan Magsamen: [00:09:08] Yeah. So the way that we talk about salient experiences are those moments that resonate with us on a neurobiological level. So as I said earlier, you can’t pay attention to everything, but there are things that you do pay attention to that are important to you, either practically or emotionally. I’ll give an example. When you go to a cocktail party and you meet up with a friend and you are catching up, you haven’t seen them in a long time, you’re going to be paying attention to what that person is saying because it’s important to you and you’re not going to be hearing the 25 other conversations or even maybe the music in the background because you’re going to be attending to that salient experience that that person is is communicating with you. And so we make those decisions instantaneously all the time. And as we do that, we store that knowledge and. Those responses in our brains and our bodies, and they’re as unique as your fingerprints. So no one has the same salient experiences or the same way of defining what’s meaningful to them as you do. And so I think it’s really in other words, we talk about how you are, what you experience and what your you choose to bring in and how you pay attention to that.
Mindy Peterson: [00:10:27] And with the back to that neuroplasticity, I love how you share that story of how you’re you’re married to a neuroscientist. And when you’re dating in those early days. I love how you talk about that first kiss and how your husband described to you the neuroplasticity and how that first kiss rewired his brain. That’s a that’s a great story. It’s I have.
Susan Magsamen: [00:10:47] A I have a little piece of artwork that he created that explains neuroplasticity to me through that kiss. And it’s like my favorite piece of artwork in our in our house. But, you know, it’s interesting when you have these salient experiences and they are so powerful, they actually help to erase the memories that came before. So what I like to think of is all the girls and all the women that he kissed before are no longer in his brain.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:13] Wiped clean.
Susan Magsamen: [00:11:14] Wiped clean.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:15] So how or why is art especially music, a major conduit for saliency and building these new synaptic connections?
Susan Magsamen: [00:11:26] So music and sound are so unique because they have the ability to, as I mentioned earlier, really go right to the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system. And so where things like vision and even taste are are things that are processed through multiple systems. Sound is really sort of a very pure vibration experience, as is music. And so it has the ability to really impact us at such a deep emotional level where a lot of the other things that we bring into our bodies are processed, we feel them, and then we create cognitive responses to them or reactions to them. Music is so visceral that we really respond to it immediately. You know, you can think about when you hear a song come on in the car, even if you haven’t known that song before, if it’s in majors or minors, how that makes you feel or if it’s something that you’ve never heard before and that you can’t find a pattern in it. Sort of how your brain sort of begins to start to search for that pattern. And so there’s something really unique about the way that sound enters our ears and how that gets processed into electrical impulses that moves through into our limbic system.
Mindy Peterson: [00:12:43] Well, one of the quotes from your book that I love to there are a lot of them I love. I loved your book. I highly recommend it. But your book says this summarizes quite nicely why the arts have such a potent effect on our health. Whereas a pharmacological treatment works on one, maybe two pathways, the arts have the ability to trigger hundreds of mechanisms that work in concert. And then you quote Ruth Katz, who said achieving well-being is both an art and a science. And neuro arts bridges that gap, which I thought was another great summary. But you talk about how the neuro arts are being used in at least six distinct ways to heal the body. They’re being used as preventative medicine, as symptom relief for everyday health issues, as a treatment or intervention for illness, developmental issues and accidents, psychological support as a tool for successfully living with chronic issues and at the end of life to provide solace and meaning. And that really pretty much covers the gamut of health and well-being. And some more specific examples that you also kind of talk about in the book. I mean, this is being used for everything from mental health and mental wellness to obesity to pain perception to, you know, it’s like name it. And there’s a way that you can use art to be involved in either eliminating or reducing those symptoms, bringing about increased well-being. Any other like specific things that you want to mention that people may have no clue that arts can possibly be used for and may really surprise listeners? Yeah.
Susan Magsamen: [00:14:31] You know, one of the things that I have found so fascinating in the work that I’ve done with the Aspen Institute, you mentioned Ruth Katz, is that when we did some surveys a couple of years ago to understand the pulse of the way the general public and also policy makers understood the role of the arts, People felt they understood the arts in the sense that they were a enrichment and an enhancement and some. Thing that gave them pleasure. And they also knew that health was important and that things like exercise and sleep and nutrition were important. But there was very little understanding of the bridge between the way the arts and health come together to really help us grow and thrive. And yet there’s so much research that’s been done in all the areas that you mentioned that really lift up the way the arts can help in small ways in terms of things like symptom relief and neurodevelopment for for child development. Thinking about some of the things that you mentioned in terms of end of life care or chronic illness learning, building communities. And I think one of the things that is the book is really trying to do is is open up this door that has been closed for a very long time to say that we are hardwired for the arts. They are about the way that we do live and grow.
Susan Magsamen: [00:15:58] And historically through the millennia, these experiences are what have kept us healthy, have kept us developing, have kept us growing, and that there’s really an opportunity now to bring these arts forward in complement to traditional medicine. The way that we think about learning, the way that we think about public health and community development. So I think it is a superpower that we’ve left on the table. And as we start to really understand more about the neurobiology of the way the arts impact us, there’s really so much that is possible. We did an economic analysis with the Aspen Institute and AARP to look at, for example, just a simple singing intervention for Alzheimer’s patients. What would the return on investment be for something like that? And what we found after looking at all of the different variables of class and race and and income. We found that there was a 3 to 1 return on an investment of bringing an art singing intervention to Alzheimer’s patients. So that’s extraordinary and really extraordinary. And you can you can understand how that could make sense for the caregiver, for the patient and for the facility that’s caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, where mood and even cognition, quality of life is so diminished. And by able to shift that, you can really think about how you can then use those dollars for other things that we need in society.
Mindy Peterson: [00:17:34] Yeah. Well, yeah, a lot of people do view music and the arts as a luxury entertainment, maybe an escape, but not as something that can really be vital to improving their their health, whether it’s mental health or their physiological health. So like you mentioned, we’re leaving a lot on the table here that should be pulled in and being utilized and put to good use. And that’s really exciting that you have the data to back up the economic impact that utilizing the arts in this way can have on different populations.
Susan Magsamen: [00:18:10] And it’s everywhere and it’s anytime and it’s any form of art. You know, sticking with music and sound, you can hum in the shower, right? And that changes your parasympathetic nervous system, changes your mood. You can listen to the radio, you can sing in the car, right? You can, you can you can be both a maker and a beholder. We know that when people are actually playing music, that there are literally brain structure changes that occur where the cerebral cortex actually grows in size and there’s more synaptic connection. So, you know, whether you’re a maker or a beholder, there are dramatic benefits that are really there by by just engaging in some of these different ways of using music.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:57] Yeah. And I like how with what you just said, you point it out that this is very accessible. It can be free. It doesn’t have to be a big, huge project that’s very expensive and you don’t have to be good at it. Like you said, singing in the shower is just as effective as somebody singing on stage in a lot of ways. So it’s it’s open and accessible to anybody. Now, a lot of these aesthetic art treatments and we’re talking about music, we’re talking about poetry, we’re talking about, you know, the whole gamut. A lot of them I’m guessing the the holdup has been that there hasn’t been rigorous scientific testing done on that to show some of these concrete results. Is that where Neuroarts blueprint comes in is to do conduct some more of that research?
Susan Magsamen: [00:19:46] Yeah. So there have been many studies. Often they’re small because there has not been much federal funding in the United States to to research the role of the arts. Interestingly, when you think about Alzheimer’s, there is in dementia there, we spend about $3 billion plus a year on dementia and Alzheimer’s research for all of the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts. We spend just a little bit over $100 million. So when you think about the scale of what we put towards research and and even practice of the arts, it’s very, very small and that needs to be increased. So part of what the blueprint is advocating for is more research, even more rigorous research. And the NIH has been done quite a bit of work over the last five years to develop a tool kit for music and sound, and that’s the most studied art form. And it’s an area that the research is really growing dramatically, but also to look at the ways that policy can be developed for practitioners. So you mentioned Gabby Giffords music therapist. Music therapy is an extraordinary therapy, and the reality is there aren’t enough music therapists to go around. There’s the pipeline and the pathways to become music. Therapists are rigorous, and there’s not a lot of reimbursement available across the country for music therapists or people that are using music in other modalities for compensation. So so there’s a lot of work to be done in creating this field and really building this work so that it’s democratized. There are pathways for people of diversity and inclusion. There’s an opportunity to really make a living wage when you’re using an art form in service of health and well-being. So the blueprint is a really wonderful project and we’re marrying that with a lot of partners all over the world. We’ve done work with the World Bank. We’ve also been working very closely with the World Health Organization, who has launched a fabulous program that’s looking at the arts in 193 countries around the world. So really, there’s so much happening. Interestingly, in other countries where there’s socialized medicine, the arts are often covered through something called social prescribing.
Mindy Peterson: [00:22:17] Where physicians interesting to hear about in your book.
Susan Magsamen: [00:22:20] Amazing, right? It’s really an amazing thing to think about that someone would actually write a prescription to go to a museum or to go to a concert or learn how to sing. And I’ll just add one more shout out. Renee Fleming, who is the co-chair of the Neuroarts blueprint, along with Eric Nestler from Mount Sinai. He’s a neuroscientist, have done some really extraordinary work during COVID and started something called the Healing Breath Program, where singers and actors who are trained to use their voice and and have fantastic pulmonary exercises came together on Google Arts and culture to be able to show the general public how to use these breathing techniques. And now that’s moving into a more formalized approach to thinking about how do we study these pulmonary approaches for singing and breathing for for long COVID, but also for other kinds of pulmonary diseases and for prevention. And singing is fun, right? I mean, I can’t carry a tune. I sing all the time at the chagrin of pretty much everybody around me. But it’s okay.
Mindy Peterson: [00:23:26] Uh huh, yeah. Well, one other thing I just want to point out from your book that just really caught my attention, just a little tidbit is you talk about in the book how there’s been such a focus in the business world and in our culture about becoming efficient and productive. And I’m all about like, I love efficiency. I’m kind of an efficiency geek and listen to podcasts about efficiency and becoming more productive. But at the same time, what you said really resonated with me about how we’ve kind of reached our capacity as a culture and what we can do in terms of becoming more efficient and more productive. We kind of maxed out on that, and there’s a real desire to become more than productive workers and instead to live life fully, to be fully immersed in our sensory world and just have this shift towards sensory literacy and just the resulting impact that that has on our health and wellness. And in that vein, you talk about the social prescribing that you mentioned where some doctors and social workers are and other professionals are actually prescribing some of these sensory experiences or arts, music, aesthetic experiences. But even on a more casual scale, it’s it’s something we can do ourselves, just developing this aesthetic mindset, just being aware of the arts and aesthetics that are around us, being intentional about bringing them into our life. You say being in the aesthetic mindset is about. Being present in your life. You’re feeling and sensing all of the things that make you feel alive, grounded and connected. So I love how you cover that full spectrum of the do it yourself. This is something that’s accessible to anybody for free. And let’s keep pushing to get get more research on this and get it to the point where it is reimbursed and there’s some social prescribing available and there’s more awareness of the benefits that these arts bring and all of the different health and wellness disciplines.
Susan Magsamen: [00:25:30] Thank you for for lifting that up. I think we do want to feel more alive and we do want to feel like our that we matter and that our relationships are rich and deep and that we create some impact in our lives. Now, I want to be productive to do that too, but I want to feel that it matters and that it’s that what I do is grounded in in who I am. And so I think that’s really where the arts come forward and like exercise or sleep or, you know, things like good nutrition. We know that there’s something that we need to do every day, but we don’t make room. You know, we call it 20 minutes a day for some kind of arts practice as a maker or a beholder to really help to create that richness and fullness. And that can be preventative. It can be around protection. It can also be around intervention and an approach to help resolve something that’s happening that but that, you know, our lives twist and turn all the time. And so knowing that you have these tools available to you in multiple forms depending upon what your preferences are, I think is really a new resource that we haven’t exercised as much as we we can and that we know now that the science is really is really proving that this is something that we are totally wired for sure.
Mindy Peterson: [00:26:56] Well, and I think just being aware of these things can help us see areas where we are already incorporating arts and aesthetic experiences into our health and wellness and maybe just aren’t even aware of it. But becoming aware of it can sort of make the results exponential in our in our life. I’m just thinking last week I was visiting my daughter in Florida. She’s in college down there. It was so fun to visit her and spend time with her and her roommate and her boyfriend. And there was one night where we went out to eat together and her boyfriend has a jeep and he picked us up and we had the top off the jeep. So you have all this open air experience on the way home from the restaurant. It was dark. And so you just look up and you can see the stars. He had the music going and he has these lights down at the feet of by our feet that would flash in time to the music. So you have these, you have the stars above, you have the warm Florida air and breeze and just the ocean smell that’s coming in. You have the lights flashing in time to the music. We’re laughing and talking. And I mean, that’s that’s an aesthetic experience. That’s enhancing health and wellness and just being aware of that. You know, there’s so many people I’ve showed pictures of this trip to and they’re like, those kids really live life to the fullest, don’t they? And I said, They really do. And after this conversation, I’m thinking that really has a lot to do with it. It’s just all of these aesthetic experiences that are part of their lives that they probably don’t even consciously realize they’re incorporating.
Susan Magsamen: [00:28:37] Well, and think about how you connected to those aesthetics, but also to each other and how you created a sense of community and belonging just in those in those moments too. And I think that’s another thing that we forget, that the arts are about us, but they’re also about making those connections to each other more meaningful. And I love that. When you I could, I could I was there with you and, you know, and you can go back to that, right? You can trigger those memories when you need them. And I think to to let them pass and to, you know, have just gotten to point A to B misses the point of life.
Mindy Peterson: [00:29:14] Uh huh. Love that. Well, like I said, I loved this book. Loved, loved. Talking about it with you today. Highly recommend it. I’ll just point out that you have a co-author on this book, Ivy Ross, who is vice president of design at Google. So check out the book. It’s available today. I’ll include links in the show notes for listeners to find that. I ask all of my guests to close out our conversation with a musical, ending a coda by sharing a song or a story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Tell us about the song. Tell us a song or story that you want to share with us in closing today.
Susan Magsamen: [00:29:52] Great. So as you mentioned, Ivy Ross is my co-author and she is the vice president of hardware design at Google, and she’s also a sound expert and has studied sound for the last 35 years. And we were talking about what we could add to the coda today, and I wanted to bring her in. And so we mentioned this idea that you can sing and you can hum. But one of the things we’ve learned about is something called cymatics and cymatics is a way that you can actually make sound visible. It is a tool, a scientific instrument called a cymascope that was invented by John Reid in the early 2000. And so what I shared is a sonic vibration of Ivy’s voice becoming visible in pure water. And it’s pretty extraordinary when you actually see your voice and the complexity of your voice by just doing things as simple as ohm and humming. The way that your voice resonates is so unique. It really is as unique as your your fingerprint. And so we shared that as a way to bring Ivey into this meeting. I’ll add one other, which is every week my husband and I sing with our cousin who has frontal temporal dementia. And when we are with her and not singing, it’s hard to really find her. But when we start to sing something like You Are My Sunshine, she lightens up and she sings with us and we can sing for 20 minutes all the songs of her youth. And so I’m so grateful to be able to have those moments. So those are the two things that I wanted to share today.
Mindy Peterson: [00:31:44] Love that. So what listeners will hear next is the audio from this short video clip, and I encourage listeners to go to the show notes where they can also view the video as well as listen. And in that viewing, they’ll get to see that image that is created by Ivy’s voice.
Transcribed by Sonix.ai