There’s a good feeling we get when we see live performances. There are reasons why, too. And it’s all in your head.
But seriously, there’s legitimate research suggesting that our brains can be healthier by engaging in the arts. A few well-documented studies are easy to find on Google, but I wanted to find out if there was a real connection, so I asked an expert, a research expert I just happen to know.
Ben Bahr, William C. Friday Distinguished chair and professor in the department of Biology, Chemistry and Physics at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, studies Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related brain degenerative disorders. He believes the arts can promote brain health.
“The brain helps the art and the art helps the brain,” said Bahr, a self-professed lover of live theatre. “Think about all those active brains on the stage at once and all the creativity they are producing … .”
When we experience art, we feel a bigger connection, according to a Washington Post article published last year. The new field of “neuroaesthetics” is trying to figure out what happens when our minds perceive and interpret these experiences.
Researchers say it all begins when we enter the theatre. We crave social connection, and it is here that we can connect with others through the experience of performance. When we engage in a play, dance or musical, we are connecting with someone else, someone telling a story. We feel for the characters and share their emotions. Further, our brains interpret movement, and coupled with that emotion, it makes us want to move, too.
The connection goes deeper when music is involved. Music taps into our emotions, which connects us with memories and feelings.
“Imagine what a song can do…” Bahr said. “… Emotions are merely memories or neural patterns.”
“The more something is embedded in the brain, the easier it is to recall,” he said, explaining that this is why music therapy has been suggested as a way of improving brain function in patients with Alzheimer’s.
Scientists say there is a real connection for people in the audience at performances.
“When you go to the ballet — or any other show — you’re entering into a highly controlled experience” say the authors of the article “This Is Your Brain on Art.” “If everything works as planned, all the elements contribute to a kind of shared consciousness. In effect, your billions of brain cells are interacting with billions of other brain cells, busily making the microscopic connections that yoke together the brains of those present with an almost inescapable force.”
A trend several years ago was promoting Mozart as music for the brain. My friend Bahr was there at the same university, just down the hall when that research was done, and he happens to agree that there is value to listening to some kinds of music — subjectively, that is. Our tastes are all different.
Scientists using brain scans have found areas in the brain that respond only to music, the same areas that provoke emotional responses. They also learned that different music affects the brain in different ways. Melodic music evokes pleasant feelings and inharmonious sounds produce unpleasant feelings. As far back as 25 years ago, studies found that “spatial-temporal reasoning,” or the ability to create mental images of physical objects and the ability to see patterns in time and space, improved for college students listening to Mozart for just 10 minutes. Other studies have shown that some music enhances visual imagery and efficiency in people working with their hands.
The effects of dance and music on cognitive behavior is getting more interest. Some studies using dance and music therapy have found improvements in people with Parkinson’s disease and children with autism. In a 2012 article in The Huffington Post, one researcher said that participation in dance programs reduced the developmental rate of dementia.
As we get older, we’re faced with the “use it or lose it” principle. Activities like exercise, puzzles, games and even learning a new language or a musical instrument have been said to help keep the rust away and brains agile. But arts participation isn’t just for the brain development of older people. Children exposed to the arts at an early age develop motor skills faster, are better coordinated and have better math literacy.
According to Bahr, activity, both mental and physical, is key.
“Art, music, reading, they all stimulate circuits in the brain, and the neural firing patterns are promoting healthy connections between the neurons,” he said.
Bahr also said that it’s the unique nature of the brain that give the world its diversity of artistic expressions.
“You and I have the same circuitry as Sting or Lady Gaga, but it is the individualized patterns and experiences recorded there that set us apart,” he said. “Think about it. There are millions of books, movies, songs, plays, poems, all of them originating in these little patterns of neurons and cells.”
But it is also there, Bahr said, that the power of healing lies, especially for people with degenerative brain disorders.
Engagement in the arts is a good way to prevent mental decline. Bahr’s advice, first and foremost, is “exercise and eat healthy.” Those are easy ways to keep our brains sharp.
Finally, I’ll offer one last word of encouragement from Bahr: “Do something good with your brain.”
James Bass is the executive director of Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He may be reached at: [email protected]