This is your brain on art: How music, dance and poetry can help your brain : Shots - Health News Art can make the brain's wiring stronger, more flexible and ready to learn, say the authors of a new book, Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us.

Building a better brain through music, dance and poetry

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Next up, how art can build a better brain. Activities such as music, dance, writing, drawing - they all seem to help people master lots of other skills. As part of our occasional series on brain plasticity, NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on why art makes the brain's wiring stronger and more flexible.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The second year of medical school is all about science, but for Michael Kofi Esson, a student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, it's also about poetry and music.

MICHAEL KOFI ESSON: I really enjoy some of the African artists...


ESSON: ...Like Fela Kuti, who is, like, one of the pioneers of Afrobeats music, and more recently, I don't know if you've heard Burna Boy.


BURNA BOY: (Singing) Make all the people jump around.

HAMILTON: Esson spent his early years in Ghana playing the trumpet and writing songs when he wasn't studying math and science.

ESSON: Parents kind of ingrained that idea - you will be a doctor. You will be a doctor - very early on, and so I just was so interested in the arts, I had to combine the two.

HAMILTON: In college, that meant writing poems about chemistry.

ESSON: Some of the difficult concepts I wouldn't understand, I would try to write something about that. So I wrote about acid-base reactions - oh, my God, just so nerdy. I don't remember how it went, so don't ask me (laughter).

HAMILTON: All that music and poetry probably makes Esson a better medical student. Susan Magsamen directs the International Arts and Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University and is a co-author of the New York Times bestseller "Your Brain On Art."

SUSAN MAGSAMEN: We're really wired for art, and art is really about learning.

HAMILTON: Learning a tune or a new dance step or how to play a character on stage. Magsamen says, in the brain, those aren't isolated skills.

MAGSAMEN: The arts provide children with the kind of brain development that's really important for building really strong neural pathways.

HAMILTON: Including pathways involved in focus, memory and creativity. Magsamen says educators have known for a long time that kids who study music, for example, tend to do better in school. Now, she says, scientists are beginning to discover why.

MAGSAMEN: Children that are playing music, their brain structure actually changes and their cerebral cortex actually gets larger, and in turn, they have greater synaptic plasticity.

HAMILTON: That's the process that allows the brain to adapt in response to new experiences. Magsamen says art also helps the brain stay calm.

MAGSAMEN: Even just 15 minutes of dance reduces stress and anxiety, and it's really some of these feel-good hormones like endorphins and serotonin and dopamine, so thinking about the neurotransmitters that are released with dance is also important.

HAMILTON: And dance appears to strengthen brain circuits involved in movement and spatial orientation. Ivy Ross is the other author of "Your Brain On Art." She's also vice president of hardware design at Google.

IVY ROSS: I was a dancer for, like, 12 years, and I really think it gave me a sense of form and negative space, which helped me even in my design career.

HAMILTON: Ross says writing the book helped her connect brain science to her understanding of art and creativity.

ROSS: Creativity is making new connections, new synapses. And if you're not constantly putting yourself in those situations, you're not as resilient, and you don't have as many new ideas.

HAMILTON: But the arts have fallen out of favor in both education and the workplace. Ross says that's unfortunate.

ROSS: In modern days, we optimize for productivity and push the arts aside and, you know, thought we'd be happy, and the truth is, we're not.

HAMILTON: So people like medical student Michael Kofi Esson are trying to find a balance. Esson spends his days on science, but late at night, he still writes poems like this one about the brain and art.

ESSON: Deception is art, an art the brain has mastered. Although art is a lie, it is the brain's truth. Although art is deception, it is the brain's reality. The brain is a lie - a lie so beautiful, it is art.

HAMILTON: Esson hopes that one day he will write poems about the patients he treats. For now, though, he's still mostly an observer.

ESSON: At the end of the day, they come for the doctor and not for me, so I think once I'm actually in that position, I think I want to bring the patient into the poems.

HAMILTON: And perhaps bring some poems to his patients. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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