Arianna Huffington: At a recent health conference, Alice Walton, founder of the Heartland Whole Health Institute and the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine, told me Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us is one of her favorite books and gave me a copy. And now I can say it’s one of my favorites, too. Written by Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics at Johns Hopkins, and Ivy Ross, VP of Design at Google, the book details the science of the many ways in which art can have a powerful impact on every aspect of our well-being.

As Magsamen and Ross note, we all know we can get lost in a piece of music or art and feel moved. “But we now have scientific proof that the arts are essential to our very survival,” they write. In fact, the impact of the arts on our physiology has given rise to a new field called neuroarts. And the discoveries are already beginning to come into mainstream medicine, being used to help those with Alzheimer’s, postpartum depression, attention deficit disorder, cancer and more.

It’s an idea that’s deeply aligned with Thrive’s mission of helping people make small changes in their daily behaviors that can have a big impact on health outcomes. And in my book Thrive, I devote an entire chapter to how experiencing wonder and awe can boost our well-being. As Magsamen and Ross make clear, the arts are essential to our health. And if we’re ever going to reverse the trend lines on chronic diseases, we can’t afford to ignore such a powerful tool.

We tend to think of the arts as an escape of some kind or just entertainment. “But what this book will show you is that the arts are so much more,” the authors write. “They can be used to fundamentally change your day-to-day life. They can help address serious physical and mental health issues, with remarkable results.”

Here’s an excerpt from the book, and you can get a copy here.

Many of us believe ourselves to be thinking beings who feel, but as neuroanatomist Jill Taylor rightly points out, we are actually feeling beings who think. We are flooded all the time by varying emotions that are complex neurochemical responses to external or internal triggers. We know how we want to feel. Connected, grounded, at ease. Happy and safe. We strive to be positive, open-minded, and emotionally capable of addressing whatever comes our way. The World Health Organization (WHO) sums it up well with their definition of mental health: “A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

But we are not always able to realize or sustain the quality of mental health we hope to. We are not alone. Globally, nearly 1 billion people struggle with their mental health. Depression is a leading cause of disability. Anxiety, loneliness, and toxic stress are on the rise, which can also have detrimental effects on our physical health. A generation of adolescents and young adults are experiencing epidemic levels of mental distress.

For the first time since these statistics have been collected, mental illness is increasing at a faster rate than physical disease. There’s a tangible ripple effect to all of this, including an increase in absenteeism at school and at work, and higher rates of divorce. There is also an alarming sense of collective despair and an increasing lack of hope. An increase of what are called “diseases of despair,” which include drug and alcohol overdose, alcoholic liver disease, and suicide.

For most of us, there are times when our mental states can bring us to our knees. Those days when nothing makes sense. You feel in a fog. You are exhausted. You might be short-tempered and upset. You don’t want to talk about how you’re feeling and may find yourself disconnecting from others. Maybe you can pinpoint the moment when you began to feel unsettled by the stress of an upsetting event, a friendship in turmoil.

Other times, you don’t know why your mood took a turn; it’s like your body and mind have been hijacked. Your weight fluctuates up and down. You feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, these feelings really lock in and you just can’t seem to get out from under them.

“I am large / I contain multitudes,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote, and he wasn’t joking. We evolved to carry a range of emotional responses in our bodies, which helped us survive. There’s a debate as to exactly how many emotions human beings experience. Some psychologists hypothesize that we may have as many as 34,000 distinct emotions. Interestingly, the myriad emotions moving through us are modified by the needs of our physiology. American psychologist Robert Plutchik believes that there are eight foundational emotions—joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation—out of which thousands of varying degrees are possible. Anger, for instance, can register anywhere from minor annoyance to rage, with many subtle emotional distinctions in between.

We’re often taught by caregivers, teachers, coworkers, and society at large to ignore our complex selves. Emotions are something we should avoid or contain or control. That’s a bit like trying to tell your stomach not to digest food. Emotions are going to happen inside of you just as surely as your heart is going to beat and your lungs are going to extract oxygen from the air you breathe. You cannot stop the myriad human emotions that arise in you. That’s physiologically impossible. And it shouldn’t be the goal.

Besides, our emotions are not the problem in and of themselves. They are useful biological communicators that have evolved with us over millennia to help us survive. It’s getting stuck in our emotions where the problems can arise. The goal, then, is to facilitate how emotions move through you. Mental wholeness is having the inner capacity and resourcefulness to navigate the daily fluctuations of your life, even when you are feeling difficult emotions.

The desire to understand feelings and emotions has sparked numerous theories and debates, and there are many psychological views on the topic. Much of the differences in our understanding of emotional behaviors stems from the fact that it is difficult to study the underlying neural basis of emotions in humans or animals. The acceleration and sophistication of new technologies to visualize the brain has helped.

To understand why the arts are such an effective tool for emotional wellness, it first helps to discern the difference between an emotion and a feeling.

Husband and wife Antonio and Hanna Damasio, professors of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, have been studying the neurobiology of emotions and feelings for years, and, like Marian Diamond, have shown the ways in which biological changes happen automatically in our bodies in response to environmental stimuli.

Emotions are the initial expression of your response to environmental stimuli, inner needs, and drives, while feelings are the perception of what your body is experiencing: Often the emotion and associated action occur in the brain and body first, then the subjective awareness of these emotional states, reflecting feelings, occur next, if at all. What many researchers have learned over the decades is that, from a neurobiological perspective, multiple systems in the body and brain work together as we engage with the world, and our lives are a constant process of interpreting that incoming data on an instinctual, unconscious, and conscious level. Emotions precede our conscious recognition of a feeling, and often those emotional states can reside outside of our conscious awareness.

While feelings and the mechanisms giving rise to feelings are common between humans and other animals, humans have a much more complex cerebral cortex supporting increased levels of abstract representation related to our intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds, such that the conscious perceptions of our bodily responses to external and internal triggers—our feelings—are more differentiated and nuanced.

Tuning into Vibration: Natural Stress Relief

In the late 1990s, Ivy was a senior vice president at the American toy company Mattel, where she was in charge of design and product development for girls. One day, she and a team of researchers and colleagues sat watching several five-year-olds playing with dolls. This team had spent months developing a new way to engage with the toy, and now was the moment of truth. The girls’ responses were lukewarm at best. In fact, they were showing less and less interest in the dolls as they played. Ivy noticed that one of her colleagues began to pace. The woman was clearly tensing up, and Ivy could feel the stress building in her.

Ivy pulled two tuning forks and a hockey puck out of her backpack. Now, working for a toy company meant that carrying a hockey puck in your bag may not have seemed completely strange, but the coworker watched in wonder as Ivy struck both tuning forks on the thick rubber of the puck, eliciting a deep, resonant sound. Ivy then held the vibrating forks up to each of her coworker’s ears. Within thirty seconds, the woman let out a long sigh of relief. “Wow. Thank you,” she said. “That’s wild, I feel so much better. What did you do?”

Ivy had used a form of sound therapy to help reduce her colleague’s stress.

Stress isn’t a feeling or an emotion, rather it’s a physiological response to our emotions. Stressors can be physical or psychological. They can be real—a tiger!—or imagined—that shadow looks a lot like a tiger! Stress is a clever biophysical strategy that evolved to help us survive times of real danger, but it can easily go awry.

Ivy’s colleague had a strong emotional response to the thought that the toy would be a failure. In this case, an imaginary scenario triggered her stress—even though it felt pretty real to her! She could not yet know how this one experiment with the children would pan out, but she feared it was going to be negative. This was the stressor, and her body reacted.

The first stage of stress is alarm. Her body registered the emotion of fear as something dangerous occurring. In terms of neurobiology, this activated the autonomic nervous system, via the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands, and invoked her body’s fight-flight-freeze response. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline surged and her heart rate increased, along with her blood pressure. Her blood sugar likely spiked to prepare her for a physical action, like running away. She couldn’t run away, though, so she stayed in that room and the discomfort mounted. All of this happened within the blink of an eye, before she consciously realized that she was even having a reaction.

If this stress response isn’t quickly resolved—if she takes this experience home with her over the weekend—then she moves into the second stage, known as adaptation. Here, the body prepares for the long haul by continuing to secrete stress hormones, which can lead to insomnia, muscular pain, indigestion, and even allergies or a small cold. She might have trouble concentrating or start to feel impatient and irritable.

The third stage—recovery—can happen rapidly when the body is able to overcome stressors and return to homeostasis.

The body is so intelligent and adept at working through its stress response, to stressors both real and imagined, that it can cycle through the three stages quickly and efficiently. Stress is a natural reaction to daily pressures and it is normal. But when it’s heightened and sustained, it adversely affects our health. When stuck in stress, your body saps its resources and you feel tired and depleted, and in some cases, depressed. It can also lead to other unhealthy coping distractions like smoking, drinking, and overeating, all in a futile effort to make yourself feel better by altering your brain chemistry through nicotine, alcohol, and the feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins and the neurohormones dopamine and serotonin that can be released when eating foods like chocolate. Most often this provides short-term relief, but more often, it has adverse health effects.

More and more of us are getting stuck inside of our stress response, where we simply can’t cycle through. In its most recent report on stress in America, the American Psychological Association sounded an alarm over what they found to be a “mental health crisis of great proportion,” affecting every age. One of the most worrying findings is what’s happening to our young people. The report shows that Gen-Z teens (ages thirteen to seventeen) and Gen-Z adults (ages eighteen to twenty-three) are facing extraordinary uncertainty in their lives from unstable geopolitics, economic volatility, threats from climate change, and a global pandemic, to systemic violence, gender identity, and racism, and they have elevated stress as a direct result of consistent worry. Many are already reporting symptoms of long-term stress and anxiety.

Extreme stress can also lead to burnout. Burnout is a psychological syndrome that emerges after a prolonged response to chronic stress, where we become exhausted, detached, and cynical. It is often associated with work, but it can happen in other aspects of our lives, including parenting, caregiving, and even community service. It’s particularly acute for the millions of people in healthcare, including those who are helping sick or aging family members. 

Excerpted from YOUR BRAIN ON ART copyright © 2023 by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  • Susan Magsamen, the founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is the co-author (with Ivy Ross) of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us.
  • Ivy Ross is currently the Vice President of Design for the Hardware Product Area at Google, which was officially formed in 2016. Since 2017, she and her team launched a family of consumer hardware products ranging from smartphones to smart speakers, earning over 200 global design awards. This collection established a design aesthetic for technology products that is tactile, bold, emotional and undeniably Google. Previously, Ivy has held executive positions spanning from head of product design and development to CMO and presidencies with several companies, including Calvin Klein, Swatch, Coach, Mattel,, Bausch & Lomb and Gap. Ivy has been a contributing author to numerous books, including The Change Champion’s Field Guide and Best Practices in Leadership Development and Organizational Change. She has also been referenced in Ten Faces of Innovation, Rules of Thumb, and Unstuck, among other books. Ivy was a speaker at Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit, and has been cited by Businessweek as “one of the new faces of Leadership.” Most recently she was ninth on Fast Company’s list of the 100 Most Creative people in Business 2019. A renowned artist, her innovative metal work in jewelry is in the permanent collections of 12 international museums. A winner of the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant, Ivy has also received the Women in Design Award and Diamond International Award for her creative designs. Ivy’s passion is human potential and relationships. She believes in the combination of art and science to make magic happen and bring great ideas and brands to life.