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.

We made a bold assertion in the Introduction. We told you that arts and aesthetic experiences will improve your health and well-being and enhance your ability to learn and flourish.

So let’s lay the groundwork for why that’s true.

We’re going to start by showing you some foundational science and offering a quick tour through your body to illuminate the ways in which you are wired for the arts.

The World Inside Your Head

Imagine your brain as a globe of the Earth containing four irregular “continent” shapes on one side with no spaces in between them. Now envision these same shapes on the other side of your globe. In other words, create a mirror image of these shapes. This is your cerebrum. It consists of two brain hemispheres that are partially connected in the middle by the corpus callosum. It passes messages between the two halves so that they can communicate with each other. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and the left side controls the right.

Like different continents on a real globe, each of your brain’s regions have unique characteristics and functions. From front to back, the cerebrum is divided into four lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital.

Roughly speaking, the frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions like planning, attention, and emotion. The temporal lobe, home of the hippocampus, takes care of making memories. The parietal lobe is home to the somatosensory cortex, where information about body sensations like touch and pain is received and interpreted. The occipital lobe processes visual images. Directly under the occipital lobe imagine a roundish bulb to represent the cerebellum. The cerebellum controls balance, movement, coordination, and habit formation. This means the cerebellum is responsible for a form of procedural memory that allows your body to repeat movements without having to relearn them, such as walking. No region works in isolation, of course. They all cooperate in order for you to function at your best.

Within the lobes of the brain are a number of structures that together make up the limbic system. This system is sometimes called the “ancient” brain network and it underpins emotion and behavior. This is where your instincts for flight, freeze, or fight live. The limbic system is also made up of structures that keep your body in homeostasis, which is your body’s stable internal state. Your limbic system consists of your hypothalamus, which manages heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. The thalamus transmits all sensory information throughout the brain, with the exception of smell. And forming the shape of an almond is the amygdala; its job is to detect threatening stimuli and act instantly.

The brain is connected to the brainstem, which communicates with the spinal cord. The autonomic nervous system is made up of structures within the brain and spinal cord. It’s split into two parts: your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Imagine these as two lanes on a road. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that preps you for action, stimulating reactions like fight or flight. The parasympathetic nervous system governs your rest and reset functions, such as digestion.

In the centerfold of the book is an illustration of the brain by neuroscientist and artist Greg Dunn. See image D in the color insert. Greg’s rendering identifies the location of many of the systems and brain regions we will discuss. You can refer back to it as needed.

Now that you have the very general lay of the land within your head, we’re going to introduce you to four core concepts that underpin the science of the neuroarts and that you will be encountering throughout this book. The first is neuroplasticity, or how your brain wires and rewires itself.

Core Concept of the Neuroarts 1: Neuroplasticity

Still visualizing your brain as a globe, imagine millions of roads, highways, and bridges covering all areas, with trillions of streetlights on all of them. In some areas there are super-bright lights, in others the illumination is fainter. Some roads might look abandoned while others appear to be heavily trafficked. These are the electrical neural connections in your brain.

So, how do those well-traveled roads, or neural pathways, form and why are they so important?

We happen to have an in-house expert on that topic. Susan’s husband, Rick Huganir, is the chair of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a neuroscientist who’s been studying neuroplasticity for more than four decades. When Susan and Rick first started dating, he explained his research on neuroplasticity after giving her a good-night kiss on her doorstep. He later sketched how that kiss rewired his brain. She knew he was the one right then and there.

Rick has gotten pretty good at describing neuroplasticity to people, which is your brain’s ability to consistently form and reorganize neuronal connections and to rewire itself. He starts by asking them to picture a human brain, just as we’ve done here with you. That you’re able to pull an image out of your memory and call it forward is just one small example of the brain’s amazing capacity to take in and store information.

This brain that you’re picturing houses an interconnected network of roughly 100 billion neurons. Try to envision that gargantuan amount. Even if it’s vague and imprecise, you can see that 100 billion, right? Your brain can actually conceptualize such a vast number because you were born with the capacity to make sense of numbers.

Next, Rick zooms in and describes what those 100 billion neurons look like at a microscopic level. For many people neurons resemble trees with overlapping and interconnecting branches. A comparison to something in nature, like a tree, helps you visualize the form and complexity of this infinite system in your head. Why? Your brain loves a good metaphor. Just as you can grasp a literal object with your hand, your brain can also grasp a concept.

An individual neuron has a nucleus that is the tender heartwood of the tree trunk, and it’s surrounded by the cell body, which is like the rings of sapwood and bark protecting that center. Dendrites are the branches that sprout off these neuron trunks and are capable of receiving signals from other neurons. The axon, meanwhile, is like the tap root, sending signals out into the world. You can see the complexity of these synaptic connections in the images at the beginning of this chapter, which are actual photographic images Rick captured, showing microscopic neuronal networks in a petri dish.

The way that neurons communicate and connect is through a process known as synaptic transmission, and Rick has dedicated his life’s work to studying how these synaptic junctions are made. It turns out, neurons are very social cells. In order to survive, they need to communicate with other cells.

Each of your 100 billion neurons is connected to about 10,000 other neurons using this synaptic process. You have quadrillions of synaptic connections, creating countless circuits across the brain. These circuits, Rick points out, underlie your body’s movements, emotions, memory, everything you do. What’s occurring in your brain when you are making a memory and learning is that you are making some synaptic connections stronger and some synapses weaker, Rick explains, and in that way, you actually sculpt a new circuit that wasn’t there before, which encodes the memory. And that is plasticity.

Sometimes, a person listening to Rick’s explanation will remember hearing a phrase famously uttered by the late neuroscientist Donald O. Hebb when he first described the synapse process: “Cells that fire together, wire together.” A credo for neuroplasticity and a simple statement that’s easy to recall because the brain also loves a rhyme. Rick points out, though, that this isn’t entirely accurate.

Synapses can fire together, meaning communicate, but it takes something special for them to wire together, meaning fuse into a connection. What stimulates our neurons to communicate with one another—to fire chemical messages—and to do so with enough energy that they wire together into a synaptic connection, is based on the intensity of the sensory stimuli. It’s in the chemical soup of neurochemicals that strong synaptic connections are made, and that reflects the “saliency” of an experience.

Salience is a word that you’ll read often throughout this book, and here’s why: You could not possibly pay attention to all of the sensory stimuli coming into your body, or to the many emotions and thoughts that emerge as a result. Your brain is expert at filtering out the inputs that it deems irrelevant and focusing its attention on what it believes to be pertinent. Something that is salient is important to us either practically or emotionally; it’s what stands out. Imagine a page with all black dots except for one red one. Where does your attention go? That’s your brain making a saliency decision. Consider saliency the next time you’re at a party or in a crowded room with lots of background chatter and noise. Notice what happens when a good friend arrives and you begin to catch up. The sound around you dims and you are able to focus on, and hear, what your friend is saying. This is known as the Cocktail-Party Effect.

Things that create saliency induce the release of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, activating your synapses and increasing synaptic plasticity. This regulates memory formation, Rick says. The stronger the salient experience, the stronger the synaptic plasticity, because at that moment, a number of cells are activated, releasing lots of neurochemicals, changing the synaptic connections. Some of these connections are strengthened; some may be weakened. This helps to change the synaptic circuit responsible for memory formation, making them long lasting.

For instance, Rick will remember his first kiss with Susan forever because he had just found someone special, and his neurons were busy releasing neurochemicals so he would “know” and “remember” it.

There are several regions in the brain, anchored in the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, that work to help you determine what is salient. This has been identified as the saliency network. Throughout this book, arts and aesthetic experiences emerge as major conduits for greater saliency.

So, arts and aesthetics can quite literally rewire your brain. They are a secret sauce that helps build new synaptic connections.

Neuroplasticity can work to build stronger synapses, and it can also make a synapse weaker, and even remove it. Pruning is the term for the removal of a synaptic connection.

You might wonder why the brain wants to prune a connection. It’s the same reason a gardener wants to prune the branches of a tree or a bush: to promote stronger, healthier structures and growth. Plus, your brain does not like to waste energy. It is more energy efficient to use fewer cells, or synapses, to produce a behavior.

In the best-case scenario, pruning occurs as your brain adjusts by making enhanced connections. Lesser connections are removed. Think of it as your brain finding a new path and the old path is no longer needed. For example, you used to drive the long way home, until you discovered a better route and now you get to where you’re going faster and more efficiently. You can now forget the old route. That’s your brain pruning synapses that aren’t engaged in salient experiences. These synaptic connections atrophy from a lack of stimulation and then permanently disconnect.

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.