Brain Science and the Arts

April, 2021

A fairly universal experience of being in lockdown has been the dragging apathy that comes from a lack of social interaction, visual stimulation and too much time indoors. Recent findings in neurobiology, the scientific study of the brain and the nervous system, have explored how important contact with the natural world and sensory experience are to our mental health. Susan Magsamen, a Professor of Neuroaesthetics and the Executive Director of the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University, researches how the arts, making and interactions with nature can give us all a boost. In the excellent ‘At A Distance’ podcast, recorded for The Slowdown during the first lockdown in May 2020, Magsamen goes into detail about the neuroscience behind being well.

'Zoom fatigue', she explains, is a result of the enormous effort the brains goes to trying to glean from a screen the same level of emotional, embodied and social cognition that would come from a face-to-face conversation. Making things by hand (fortunately neither skill nor talent come into it) can help you recover; research has shown that 45 minutes of knitting can reduce cortisol levels by 25%. Spending time in a natural environment has a similar effect. Magsamen shares her own prescription for dealing with lockdown: nature, sunshine, warmth, vitamin D, peonies. ‘It really is my oxygen’ she says, ‘literally, getting out outside, smelling the flowers, watching the birds, a lot of nature.'