Neuroarts: An Emerging Field with a Plan to Transform Health
A mission to weave arts into mainstream medicine.
Posted February 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- The neuroarts is an emerging field that studies how the arts and aesthetic experiences change the brain, body, and behavior.
- A vast body of evidence demonstrates the impact of the arts on human health across a lifespan, as well as economic and social benefits.
- The NeuroArts Blueprint is an action plan to cultivate neuroarts into a mature field of research and practice in mainstream medicine.
Artists across cultures and throughout history have long recognized what scientific research has only recently been able to confirm: The arts are essential to our ability to heal and thrive.
The emerging field of neuroarts studies how the arts and aesthetic experiences change the brain, body, and behavior – and how this knowledge can be used to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities around the globe.
In 2019, the International Arts + Mind (IAM) Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine & Society (HMS) Program launched the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative to unite and advance the field. The initiative seeks to cultivate the neuroarts into a fully recognized field of research and practice. It recently released an action plan to bring arts into the mainstream of medicine and public health.
A Lifetime of Health Benefits From the Arts
A vast body of evidence demonstrates the impact of the arts across many forms of expression, from music, dance, and literature to visual arts, theater, and more. 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 cochair of the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative.
Research on the health benefits of the arts continues to grow, with promising findings including:
- Music can improve cognitive function in people with dementia, reduce anxiety in patients, and improve motor coordination.
- Dance aids people living with Parkinson's disease.
- Early participation in the arts enhances emotional and social growth in children.
- Creative arts therapies help military service members and veterans manage and recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
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, however, the arts have yet to be adopted as part of mainstream medicine and public health. But that may be changing with governments, NGOs, 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, 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.
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.
A Blueprint for the Future of Neuroarts
Over the past two years, the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative has guided efforts to unite the various disciplines with a stake in neuroarts into a collaborative community to advance the field. The initiative published its seminal report in December 2021: NeuroArts Blueprint: Advancing the Science of Arts, 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.
At the virtual unveiling of the NeuroArts Blueprint, Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, called the report a “grand step forward in the evolution of this burgeoning field. It comes at just the right time, giving us a roadmap so that we can keep learning and make full use of what we discover.”
Renée Fleming, renowned opera singer and cochair of the Blueprint initiative, added her committed voice: “For far too long, the arts have been dismissed as soft or a nice-to-have, not serious or worthy of institutional investment in the realm of health. But those narratives are breaking down.”
To learn more about the core principles, findings, and recommendations in the Blueprint, read the Executive Summary and full report — and click here to watch the virtual event celebrating the Blueprint’s release, featuring Renée Fleming, Francis Collins, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.
Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fancourt, D., & Finn, S. (2019). What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review (2019).
Golden, T. L., Springs, S., Kimmel, H. J., Gupta, S., Tiedemann, A., Sandu, C. C., & Magsamen, S. (2021). The use of music in the treatment and management of serious mental illness: a global scoping review of the literature. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 880.
The Aspen Institute. (2021). (rep.). NeuroArts Blueprint: Advancing the Science of Arts, Health, and Wellbeing.