In a Time of Stress, Neuroaesthetic Spaces and Places Create a Path to Healing and Hope

As we emerge from the pandemic, integrating the science of neuroaesthetics into our environments—whether offices, schools, or hospitals—can significantly enhance mental health, well-being, and productivity by leveraging the profound effects of art and beauty on our brains.

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Article from International Arts + Mind Lab's Research Team:

As workers report back to the office, children again fill classrooms, and all of us sort through the pandemic-induced trauma and stress of the past two years, it’s helpful to remember what humans across cultures have long recognized: Art and beauty go a long way to improve our mental health.

During the COVID era, years of death, fear, economic instability, and physical distancing exacerbated our individual and collective stress, particularly among certain groups. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has even said that there is a “mental health pandemic” impacting young people. In addition, “There has long been an epidemic of burnout and mental health issues among health care professionals, and the pandemic poured gasoline on that fire,” said Megan Jones Bell, clinical director of consumer and mental health at Google.

The road to recovery, from healing to flourishing, is long and complex. It begins with a full understanding of our well-being — health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity — and must address the physical and social dimensions of life. Luckily, the brain is agile. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the ability of neural networks to evolve through growth and reorganization.

Today, a diverse group of scientists, architects, technologists, and artists are investigating the many advantages of purposefully applying the science of neuroaesthetics — a transdisciplinary study of how arts and aesthetic experiences measurably change the body, brain, and behavior — into our lives and built spaces. “We’re a part of our environment, and our environment is part of us,” observed architect Suchi Reddy during the Aesthetics, Healing, and Mental Health discussion hosted by the team at DIALOGUE, a San Francisco strategy advisory which works with leaders to create ways to navigate, validate and accelerate strategic outcomes. The session was one of five sessions hosted by DIALOGUE that focused on the future of healthcare, future of work, and future cities.

The multi-disciplinary nature of modern problems requires an interdisciplinary approach; the DIALOGUE series and the work of the firm in general brings forward cross-sector voices to present future-focused concepts by those working in their fields. By bringing experts together to discuss the direction of their work, DIALOGUE brings insights by those at the bleeding edge of their fields to new audiences, opening up space for new thinking and insights across the spectrum of attendees. These connections that bring together interdisciplinary ideas are at the heart of solving new problems and surfacing opportunities for transformation and collaboration across ecosystems.

For example, observations connecting space and health are not new. As Winston Churchill famously noted in 1943, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” But there is a new urgency to understand the implications of our design decisions and use our built environment to better support mental health in a time of widespread stress.

The mindful application of art to space 

British neurobiologist Semir Zeki was among those who coined the term neuroaesthetics more than 20 years ago, as a way for cognitive neuroscientists to understand and measure how humans respond to the arts. Zeki was interested in the neurobiology of beauty. Decades later, we are continuing to understand more precisely how the brain changes on arts and aesthetics and how this knowledge can be used more proactively to understand the implications of our design decisions and apply various types of aesthetic experiences to our problems.

The mindful application of art and aesthetics to space — everywhere from the offices we revisit to the schools where children spend so much of their life — sparks a dynamic interplay among brain cells that spearheads billions of changes affecting our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Why can one room make us peppy while another induces drowsiness? Why does one piece of music make us weep while another makes us feel anxious? Aesthetic experiences influence our biological and emotional responses. When we learn the answers to these questions, we unlock an important puzzle box.

When thoughtfully employed, neuroaesthetics can improve physical and mental health, amplify our potential, and help us prevent or recover from illness. It can also enhance brain development in children, increase our learning capacity, build more equitable communities, and foster well-being.

Demonstrated differences

In 2019, International Arts + Mind Lab collaborated with Reddy to develop neuroaesthetic principles for three rooms as part of  Google’s A Space for Being exhibition and interactive experience spearheaded by Ivy Ross, Vice President for Google Hardware.

Each had its own mix of furniture, lighting, music, artwork, and sensory elements, such as distinct fragrances. Visitors wore soft wristbands with sensors, capable of measuring biometrics and physiology including heart rate, while they stood in each room. The participants then placed their bands in a tray, and an algorithm read their biomarkers. The data was shared with the visitor and deleted. The goal was to illustrate to each visitor where they were most at-ease.  For many, where they thought they felt calm was different from what their bodies were saying.

From experiments like these, we learn a lot. Neuroaesthetics, for instance, can be a powerful tool to enhance the workplace. As more people return to the office, their experience at work — their ability to focus, their stress levels, their level of satisfaction — has degraded, claims a report from Future Forum. That’s a liability for employers already short on manpower. In addition to the continued high volume of job openings, the number of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs remains high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an increasingly competitive environment, companies must work harder to help employees feel motivated, connected and happy. Nature exposure, through what is known as biophilic design, has been shown to have a positive effect in reducing stress, both perceived and physiologic, according to a paper published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine. This includes any experience, real or simulated, in which subjects experienced sounds, photos or videos of nature scenes. The review found that nature exposure resulted in decreased scores of self-reported stress, improved blood pressure, and could help prevent new diagnoses of hypertension.

A foundation for healing and motivation

These lessons are already in play at many new office buildings, where art-filled hallways, sunny atriums, cozy focus nooks, and large photographs of the natural environment have replaced the drab and overlit sea of beige cubicles that are often the lowest common denominator of workplace design.

The University of Florida Health Shands Hospital uses therapeutic arts to transform healing. The hospital uses artists-in-residence and creative arts therapists who help overstressed healthcare workers and patients deal with the physical and emotional toll of the pandemic and everyday disease through bedside programming and workshops in the visual, literary, and performing arts. Johns Hopkins Hospital is designing the first of its kind, restoration center called RISE (Rejuvenation, Introspection, Self-Care, Empowerment).  Using neuroaesthetics principles, the center will be open to staff, clinicians and faculty to support their mental health, recovery and resilience.

Schools, too, can benefit from this understanding. For millions of children, school is their workplace. An investigation that evaluated the cognitive impact of green space for more than 2,500 primary school students found that those exposed to more green space at home, on their commutes, and at school had greater improvements in working memory and attentiveness a year later. Educators, too, will benefit from teaching spaces that are filled with art and sun-lit. Most importantly, this approach can add a much-needed dose of joy to a student-teacher relationship that has been severely taxed by the pandemic. A simple classroom exercise in coloring or drawing can be invigorating for both students and teachers alike.

In this critical time of vulnerability and change, we need to implement these lessons into our lives, our offices and schools, and our communities at large. When employed in our design decisions, neuroaesthetics can help us create a foundation for healing, health, and hope.

More articles from IAM Lab's research team available here.