How art changes the brain

6 August 2018

Can art change the brain? In a word: yes. A panel of scientists and art practitioners came together to connect the dots between creativity and neuroplasticity at a Sydney Ideas event during Innovation Week. 

We brought together neuroscientists, artists and philanthropists to discuss why creativity is beneficial for humanity. 

The podcast was recorded at a Sydney Ideas event as part of the University's Innovation Week

Host: Fenella Kernebone

Speakers: Associate Professor Elizabeth Scott, Professor Sharon Naismith, Gill Nicol, Bernadette Harvey, Samantha Meers AO

Producers: Anna Burns and Megan Crane

Editor: Katie Harkin

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What is neuroplasticity?

Our understanding of how the brain works has progressed rapidly in the past decade. Academic literature used to depict brain activity as static, but thanks to imaging technology, we have the capacity see how the brain operates in real-time and visualise the intricate connections between different brain regions that inform how we think and behave.

Continued research in this area has indicated that, faced with different situations, our brains will continue to change and respond to environmental activity throughout our lives. This concept is called neuroplasticity – and when mixed with art engagement, can be incredibly beneficial for mental wellbeing.  

A critical period for brain development is the first three years of life. Coupling early-life with engaging opportunities, such a learning a musical instrument or a second language, has the capacity to accelerate brain development. Studies have also found that frequent engagement with art actually reorganises the frontal cortex, resulting in enhanced creativity and lessening of inhibitions. These inhibitions can be what prevent us from taking part in art in the first place – the fear of not being good enough or worrying what other people think. 

Neuroplasticity knows no age limits

We often take for granted how malleable the human brain is at the early stages of life. From language acquisition to discerning social cues, the first three years of life are when the brain is at its most elastic.

But how about when the brain starts to age? When brain development slows down and neurons cease to connect, as is the case for the 400,000 Australians who suffer from dementia. This is a concept that researcher Professor Sharon Naismith from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre has grappled with throughout her career. And she believes that the ageing brain is much more capable than it is given credit for.

Research has found that people living in nursing homes are only engaging in meaningful or functional activity ten percent of the time. Sharon describes this as an excess disability ­– as their lack of functionality outweighs any level of impairment that they have. Through a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sharon and her colleagues developed a three-year research study called Artful to measure how art and creativity can be used to promote brain neuroplasticity in people with dementia.

During the program, groups of people with dementia attended five 2-hour sessions every fortnight over a ten-week period at the MCA, with extraordinary results, including freedom of expression, social cohesiveness and empowerment for people with dementia, whose opinions had been deemed irrelevant. 

Why it pays to give

When it comes to philanthropy and giving, why is art undervalued?

Leaving the science to one side, philanthropist Samantha Meers AO gave a new perspective about why we need to fund the arts. She spoke about the privilege in seeing how funding helps ideas, such as those discussed in this talk, come to life.

“For me, the arts are society’s connective tissue,” she said. “The stories we tell each other through art ignite our imagination.”

She spoke of those who oppose cultural philanthropy, advocating that funding should only be used to alleviate human and animal suffering. The projects and research discussed in this panel prove otherwise, with lack of engagement with art actually leading to negative plasticity and reduced quality of life.  

To her, ignoring the arts is like focusing on the bare minimum, while overlooking the importance of creating or enjoying the creations of others.

“I can’t imagine a world that sees only bare minimums of human existence as its purpose and yearns for nothing beyond that minimum.”  

“What an insult to those in need in our community to constrain their humanity to the bare minimums of human survival.”

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