The Layered Onion is excited by the work of the John Hopkins International Arts + Mind (IAM) Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine & Society (HMS) Program which culminated with the release of The NeuroArts Blueprint: Advancing the Science of Arts, Health, and Wellbeing in December 2021. This work confirms what artists across cultures and throughout history have long recognized, though scientific research has only recently been able to confirm: The arts are essential to our ability to heal and thrive.
A Lifetime of Health Benefits From the Arts
In 2019, the World Health Organization compiled more than 3,000 scientific publications that documented the role of the arts in improving physical and mental health, preventing and managing illness, and promoting well-being.
“The health benefits of the arts extend across the lifespan, from enhancing early childhood development to reducing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” explained Eric Nestler, director of the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and co chair of the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative.
Early empirical research also suggests that neuroarts provide meaningful economic and social benefits by reducing healthcare costs, promoting economic development, and strengthening the social fabric.
Despite mounting evidence pointing to their value, the arts have yet to be adopted as part of mainstream medicine and public health. Slowly things are changing with governments, NGOs, partners, academics, clinicians, and artists pulling together to build the case for neuroarts.
The State of the Neuroarts Field
By its very nature, neuroarts transcends any one scientific discipline, instead demanding partnerships across an array of seemingly disparate fields. Advances in scholarship related to the arts and health have emerged from neuroscience, neurology, medicine, psychology, education, and the social sciences. That work is richly informed by non-invasive technologies, including brain imaging and biomarkers, that enable researchers to study how the arts affect human physiology, from the molecular level to entire biological systems.
The same transdisciplinary forces influence arts practices, with professionals in creative arts therapy, psychotherapy, social work, arts in health, and community development all translating and applying the arts to health in various ways. Once again, technology has propelled the field forward. “The use of virtual platforms has increased participation and access to art therapy…reaching populations that probably would not be ordinarily exposed to various art forms,” said Emmeline Edwards, who directs the Division of Extramural Research at the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Edwards serves as an advisor to the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative.
Despite this broad interest, neuroarts remains a young and decentralized field. Researchers and practitioners, siloed within their own worlds, lack opportunities and structural incentives to communicate or collaborate with one another. As a result, research standards, outcome measures, and terminology are inconsistent, making it difficult to synthesize and apply learnings across disciplines.
The consequences are evident in a recent scoping review of music interventions to treat serious mental illness, which looked at 349 studies and found that data was being reported inconsistently and that the design and measurements used in the experiments varied significantly. “What we’ve realized from this study is that the extensive time, funds, and expertise being invested in this field will see limited returns until the people involved take the necessary steps to ensure their findings can be understood in the context of other studies and practices,” said Tasha Golden, PhD, lead author of the review and director of research at the International Arts and Mind Lab.
A Blueprint for the Future of Neuroarts
More rigorous research and transdisciplinary collaboration is needed, backed by sustainable funding, policy and leadership, for the neuroarts to mature as a field and deliver on its promise of greater health and wellbeing.
The Blueprint presents both a five-year action plan and a longer-term vision of a robust neuroarts ecosystem dedicated to improving human health, strengthening communities, and promoting culture change.
To learn more about the core principles, findings, and recommendations in the Blueprint, read the Executive Summary.
A version of this post originally appeared in Psychology Today