Why our brains crave beauty, art and nature

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I think I must be getting old. I’ve started wanting to know the names of trees and birds and wildflowers. I’ve become enamoured with the changing of the seasons. I find myself in my local woodlands at 6am not because I’m still at a “forest rave” from the night before, but because I want to get straight out into nature after waking up, so as to catch the bright morning light, the dew on the leaves and the birdsong in all its rambunctiousness.

Or maybe I’m just tapping into a part of my nature that I have been repressing — or at least failing to recognise — until now; that which predisposes me to love, appreciate and even crave all of these things. Maybe the colours and sounds and textures of nature are ones that even those of us who live in cities have been conditioned to find beautiful and awe-inspiring. And maybe all this is a crucial, yet under-appreciated, component of our wellbeing.

That’s what some thinkers who are part of an emerging interdisciplinary field that stresses the importance of art, beauty and nature for our mental and physical health would argue, anyway.

Neuroaesthetics — a term first coined by Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at University College London, in 1999 — is a subfield of both applied aesthetics and cognitive neuroscience, which studies the brain’s response to various forms of aesthetic experience. Its proponents argue that engagement with art and nature should not be considered a “nice to have”, but a necessity.

It would be tempting to assign such ideas to the amorphous world of “mindfulness” that we all keep on being told is so good and important for us (I am a fan of this world myself, though not of its name). But Susan Magsamen, founder and director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-author of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us, tells me that recent neurological research shows that aesthetic experience is about more than that. It may indeed be helpful in allowing us to feel more present, and to quiet the interminable chatter of our minds, but neuroaesthetics, she argues, constitutes a “whole new lane” in itself.

“We’ve learnt about nutrition, we’ve learnt about sleep, we’ve learnt about exercise, we’ve learnt about mindfulness,” says Magsamen. “Now what we’re looking at is how arts and aesthetic experiences are essential to the human condition.” She explains that while some of these experiences can bring similar benefits to “mindful” activities — by lowering the activation of the brain’s stress-related amygdala, reducing cortisol and moving us into our parasympathetic “rest and digest” state — neural scans show that there’s more to aesthetic experience than this.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, research by Zeki has shown that, while we might all have different ideas about what constitutes beauty, the same area of the brain — the “medial orbito-frontal cortex”, or “mOFC” — lights up when we perceive something to be beautiful. This is true regardless of whether we are talking about visual, musical, mathematical, or even moral beauty.

There is plenty of evidence, too, to support the argument that engaging with the arts has a positive effect on health. A study by researchers at UCL, using data from more than 6,000 adults over 50, which took into account economic, health and social factors, found that those who engaged in “arts activities” every few months or more had a 31 per cent lower chance of dying over the follow-up period (a period of 12 years, on average).

Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of music for patients with dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders. Other research has also shown that dance can help those suffering from Parkinson’s by increasing neuroplasticity and stimulating multiple layers of the neural system.

It’s worth pointing out that we don’t need to be particularly talented in a given artistic field to benefit from it. “Whether you’re good at it or not is absolutely irrelevant to the neuroaesthetic benefits,” Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tells me. But while all of us were creative as children — we drew, we danced, we banged pots and pans — many of us stop our artistic pursuits after being told that we’re not actually very good at them.

That’s a mistake, according to the neuroaestheticians. In fact, if you do happen to have been blessed with artistic ability of some sort — one that you have made a career out of — you might not be experiencing the same benefits now that your livelihood depends on it. Your brain has probably moved out of the freewheeling, creative flow state and into a more judgmental, nit-picky “control state”, as Swart calls it. So get out there and make some terrible art. Or if you prefer, just expose yourself to something beautiful. Your brain will thank you for it. 

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