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Building a better brain through music, dance and poetry

A growing body of research is probing art's power effects on the brain.
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A growing body of research is probing art's power effects on the brain.

To make sense of difficult science, Michael Kofi Esson often turns to art.

When he's struggling to understand the immune system or a rare disease, music and poetry serve as an anchor.

"It helps calm me down and actively choose what to focus on," says Esson, a second-year student at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Esson, who was born in Ghana, also thinks his brain is better at absorbing all that science because of the years he spent playing the trumpet and studying Afrobeat musicians like Fela Kuti.

"There has to be some kind of greater connectivity that [art] imparts on the brain," Esson says.

That idea — that art has a measurable effect on the brain and its structure — has support from a growing number of scientific studies.

"Creativity is making new connections, new synapses," says Ivy Ross, who is vice president of hardware design at Google and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us.

Ross co-wrote the book with Susan Magsamen, director of the International Arts and Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Magsamen says art's effect on the brain is most dramatic in children.

"Children that are playing music, their brain structure actually changes and their cerebral cortex actually gets larger," Magsamen says.

In Your Brain on Art, Magsamen and Ross describe how a person's neural circuitry changes in response to activities like learning a new song, or a new dance step, or how to play a character onstage.

They also explain why a growing number of researchers believe these changes result in a brain that is better prepared to acquire a wide range of skills, including math and science.

A brain trained to flex

Music, dance, drawing, storytelling — all of these have been a part of human cultures for tens of thousands of years. As a result, "we're really wired for art," Magsamen says.

And when we make art, she says, we increase the brain's plasticity — its ability to adapt in response to new experiences.

"Children who engage in the arts are better learners," Ross says. "Students with access to art education are five times less likely to drop out of school and four times more likely to be recognized with high achievement."

The arts also can teach the brain skills that it's unlikely to get in a classroom, Ross says.

"I was a dancer for like 12 years and I really think it gave me a sense of form and negative space," she says.

Those brain circuits probably helped in her wide-ranging career, she says, which includes designing jewelry that's part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian.

Dancing also seems to improve mental health, Magsamen says.

"Even just 15 minutes of dance reduces stress and anxiety," she says, noting that the activity causes the brain to release "feel-good" hormones like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.

Measuring art's effects

The link between arts and academic achievement has been noted by educators for many years. But it's only in the past couple of decades that technology has allowed scientists to see some of the changes in the brain that explain why.

In 2010, for example, scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that professional musicians had greater plasticity than nonmusicians in the hippocampus, an area involved in storing and retrieving information.

"The arts provide children with the kind of brain development that's really important for building strong neural pathways," Magsamen says, including pathways involved in focus, memory and creativity.

Esson, the medical student, may have been using some of those pathways when he found a novel way to study difficult concepts in chemistry.

"I wrote [poems] about acid-base reactions," he says with a laugh. "Oh my God, just so nerdy."

A failing grade for arts in school

Despite growing evidence that arts can improve performance in many other areas, activities like music and drawing have fallen out of favor in education and our culture, Ross says.

"We optimize for productivity and push the arts aside," she says. "We thought we'd be happy. And the truth is, we're not."

So people like Michael Kofi Esson are trying to find a balance.

Now at the end of his second year of medical school, Esson spends his days on science. But sometimes late at night, he still writes poems, including one that ends with this thought about how art and the brain both create their own version of reality.

Deception is art,
An art the brain has mastered.
Although art is a lie,
It is the brain's truth
Although art is deception,
it is the brain's reality.
The brain is a lie,
a lie so beautiful, it is art.

Esson hopes that one day he will write poems about the patients he treats. For now, though, he's still mostly an observer.

"I get to talk to them. But at the end of the day, they come for the doctor, not for me," he says. "Once I'm actually in that position, I think I want to bring the patient into the poems."

And perhaps bring some of the poems to his patients.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Hamilton
Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.