Susan Magsamen: The marriage of science and art will transform architecture

susan magsamen
Susan Magsamen. Image: Archive of Susan Magsamen

Susan is the founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, a pioneering neuroaesthetics initiative from the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Her work lies at the intersection of brain sciences and the arts and how our unique response to aesthetic experiences can amplify human potential. She is the co-author of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us with Ivy Ross, Vice President for Hardware Design at Google. 

Susan is also the designer of the Impact Thinking model, an evidence-based research approach to accelerate how we use the arts to solve problems in health, wellbeing, and learning. In addition to her role at IAM Lab, she also serves as co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint project in partnership with the Aspen Institute.

Natalia Olszewska: What’s your story, Susan? When did you start to think about the brain, art, and architecture?

Susan Magsamen: When I was little, my twin sister had a farming accident where she almost lost her leg. We were always close, and it was very traumatic for us both. It separated us because she had to stay home for a year, and I had to go out into the world without her. And what was crazy about that is that I’m an introvert, and she’s an extrovert, so our roles were reversed.

Before the accident, my sister wasn’t an artist, but she started making art partly because she was bored. She also realized that she had a deep fear from trauma stuck inside of her. And she couldn’t talk about it because there were no words to express it. At that time, fifty years ago, we didn’t know much about Broca’s area of the brain and how it can shut down because of trauma.

We didn’t know much about trauma or how to address it. Back then, when something happened, we just didn’t talk about it. People quietly moved on and held painful experiences inside. But my sister started to draw, and through her drawings, I could understand her deep feelings and pain in a way that I would never have understood otherwise, and she began to heal as well.

Natural environments are becoming recognized for their therapeutic properties. Image: Michal Matlon

For me, nature was always my art. It was the place where I found the most sense of ease, calm, and inspiration. I am a horseback rider and an avid gardener. When I was in the built environment, I was always the least comfortable. But when I was in nature, I could ground myself. So I was always very aware of the impact of space on my mind and body.

Over time, my sister has become a well-known artist. She’s a children’s illustrator and book writer. She published over 80 books. I ended up making things all the time. I sing, dance, collage, and write poetry, but I never called it art. It was just my way of living and finding ways to express myself.

Multisensory Learning

When I went to undergraduate school, my first degree was in recreation therapy or therapeutic recreation. It was really about nature and being in nature, though we didn’t call it “nature therapy” yet. That’s when I began to think about the science behind arts and aesthetic experiences. But there still wasn’t the right academic field for what we do. It’s emerging now, and it’s highly interdisciplinary. 

When I finished undergraduate school, I went to work for public television, working on educational programming for children and adults that used multisensory learning experiences. And that worked for me because that’s how I lived. Within the woods, I was watching things, I was pretending, I was looking at clouds, I was making things.

I started to work with a couple of children’s museums, and in 1983, I was invited to develop a summer program called Chautauqua. I actually have the first poster frames, and when I walk down my office steps, it reminds me of the core roots of my work.  

curiosity kits
Curiosity Kits. Image: Archive of Susan Magsamen

Together with museum educators, we decided to create multisensory hands-on experiences for children. We worked in arts, sciences, and world cultures. We brought in Native American potters, weavers, and scientists, and they did experiments with kids who loved it. They learned so much. They created relationships. They made connections. The parents were amazed at their children’s interest and passion for learning.

At the end of the summer, the museum director asked me if there was a way I could package these experiences so they could keep using them after the camp. So, I created this thing called Curiosity Kits, which ultimately became a company and was very successful. 

And when I saw what was happening cognitively, developmentally, and emotionally with these children, I became very interested in understanding it better. As a result, I started to study this whole idea around multisensory learning, cognitive skill development, and intergenerational communications.

Curiosityville. Image: Archive of Susan Magsamen.

I was then invited by the School of Education at Johns Hopkins to set up the Neuroeducation Initiative to expand learnings about the arts into education. It made so much sense, but even today, the arts and education are struggling. They’re being taken out of schools in the United States and many countries around the world.

They’re seen as enrichment and not as the complex neurobiological and developmental way we’re wired to learn. I spent a lot of time helping the School of Education develop a curriculum and a program, which they still have, and it’s one of their most successful programs. But the education field has not embraced the arts at the level they need to be for many reasons, although I think it’s at the tipping point. I can see it coming.

Connecting Science and Art

In 2004, I was invited by the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins to start a program that I run now called the International Arts and Mind Lab (IAM Lab). The School of Medicine had a donor who believed in the power of the arts and wanted us to study how the arts change our brains and bodies.

Over the last 20 years, I have been becoming a translational researcher, somebody who’s interested in how to translate research to practice and to scale this work. The IAM Lab approached the science of the arts through a unique lens, including user experience, lived experience, public health, basic science, and social science. 

Initially, we just tried to get our feet wet to understand what was going on with arts and aesthetic experiences, what the research said, what the fields were, and who the practitioners were doing cutting-edge work. 

Later, in 2007, we developed something called the Impact Thinking Model. It’s a scientific translational framework and a highly interdisciplinary way of looking at any art form or aesthetic experience. 

Today, we’re doing work on settings related to psychedelic therapy. We’re also doing a lot of work with creative youth, mental health, and around the idea of “intentional spaces”. One of the reasons my lab is interested in architecture and design is because we believe it’s the holy grail – the human-built environment is where we spend so much of our time.  

Susan Magsamen. Image: Archive of Susan Magsamen

We used to be outside and in nature 99% of the time. We’re inside and in cities a lot more now than ever. These spaces change us, and it’s a privilege and a responsibility to allow the field to embrace the full benefit of all the knowledge there.  

Another big effort for me is around field building. About four years ago, we partnered with the Aspen Institute to develop the NeuroArts Blueprint, an initiative to create a new field called neuroarts with researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders.

But I believe this work must also become a part of the general public’s conversations and zeitgeist. And so I have written a book with Ivy Ross from Google called Your Brain On Art. It’s about how the arts transform us. 

We think lifting this conversation out of academia and professional organizations is essential. We want to talk more about what you can do daily to change your life and enhance it through knowledge and practical ideas about neuroarts, neuroaesthetics, and neuroarchitecture.

Getting in Touch With Our Feelings

Natalia: Your story really moved me. On several occasions, you used the word “multisensory,” which I believe has been a foundation of what you’ve been doing all these years and what you’re doing now at International Arts and Mind Lab. What’s the connection between nature, art, and the healing process? Is it about multisensoriality? 

Susan: We are hardwired to bring the world in through our senses. There’s no dispute about that. We probably have more than five senses. There are some studies now that are looking at as many as fifty. We have a hundred billion neurons that we’re born with, and connecting them through synapses is how we build neuroplasticity. It’s how we do everything, right?

And so, all the arts with a lowercase ‘a’ that people do, such as humming, doodling, singing, dancing, and drawing, to name a few, ignite our senses. In turn, our brain creates synaptic connections that build neural pathways. Because we can’t bring in all of the sensory experiences around us, our brain chooses what we call “salient” experiences. 

We probably have more than five senses. There are some studies now that are looking at as many as fifty.

These are experiences that are important to you. They might include influences from your culture, lived experiences, and childhood. And researchers are beginning to understand more about how we determine what is and isn’t salient by looking in part at the Default Mode Network.

We also know that the brain processes experiences like music and distributes memories of it in different parts of the brain. There are these backup systems, so when the hippocampus, for example, is failing because of cognitive decline or disease, other parts of the brain store those memories that are so salient to us.

With Parkinson’s Disease, dopamine, a “reward” chemical, isn’t being produced, yet the person can still experience these feel-good moments when dancing. While you may not be making more dopamine when dancing as a Parkinson’s patient, other systems are active. 

For example, your brain produces serotonin and oxytocin. These neurotransmitters allow you to experience pleasure when dancing, along with the added benefits of improved gait, mood, and cognitive gains, which is extraordinary.

And multisensory bodily feelings have much to do with how we experience things like physical spaces. Ivy Ross from Google hosted an exhibition at the Milan Design Week in 2019. 

And we learned that in over fifty percent of the people that came through the exhibit, the space they said they liked best was not the same space their body felt most at ease – we measured these responses through biomarker sensors. So one interesting takeaway was that we are not always in touch with how we feel and are often inside of our heads.  

There’s the great Jill Bolte Taylor quote: Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.” Remembering that our bodies are feeling all the time is so important, but today, in such a transactional world, we don’t always remember or trust that, listen to it, or sometimes even know how to tap into it.

Transforming Architecture

Michal: This reminded me of something we talked about with Oshin Vartanian. In a study he mentioned, researchers found that aesthetic preferences that architects proclaim often do not match their bodily preferences for a particular type of space. Do you think architects need to get in contact with their bodies and feelings too? 

Susan: I think we all need to get in contact with our feelings and emotions. Architects and designers go through lengthy training, and during that, they develop many deep beliefs. But they are also always growing and learning in their practices. So inviting designers to expand their resources, review research and incorporate it into their creative process is a natural progression. 

A great musician isn’t somebody who has played the same hit for 40 years. They make new music all the time, right? And that’s the same way architects and designers think as well. As they’re experiencing the world and interpreting their environments, this is reflected in their work.  

We all need to get in contact with our feelings and emotions.

But sometimes, there are external stressors that inhibit their curiosity and creativity. In some design situations, the way of doing things often doesn’t allow architects and designers to explore new approaches because they’re constantly under pressures that limit creative thinking and execution of ideas. 

Michal: What could help architects, designers, and urban planners grow and become more curious?

Susan: It’s a great question. First, architects, designers, and urban planners are an amazingly creative group, and working together is a pleasure. I believe there are so many “ways of knowing,” and engaging our curious nature to be lifelong learners helps us live our fullest lives.

It’s important to talk with people who are not in our fields. To bring in new perspectives and broaden our understanding. Being exposed to new ideas fosters new thinking and creative problem-solving. Ivy and I talk about creating an aesthetic mindset in our book. There are four attributes: curiosity, playful exploration, sensory awareness, and engaging as a maker or beholder.

Architecture can be very transactional, and when this happens, it shuts down the possibility of innovation, creativity, and new ways of learning and knowing. We are at a beautiful crossroads where the marriage of science and art offers the opportunity to benefit society in urban spaces, healthcare, education, and housing. We all have the opportunity to enhance the impact of spaces – that is very exciting to me.

Maggie’s Leeds Centre by Heatherwick Studio. Image: Hufton + Crow Photography

To do this, we need to continue to lift up leaders and advocates in the field who will say: “Interdisciplinary work is essential”. And we need to develop new outcome measures and evaluate projects based on them. 

How do we measure for people getting better, faster, and quicker? How do we assess the value of enhanced relationships or measure the impact of kids coming to school more often? What should be the outcome of each project?

The neuroarts field is exploding. For a while, I felt like we were pushing rocks up a hill to build and expand this work, and then, suddenly, we couldn’t keep up with what was happening. 

For example, healthcare leaders now see that it makes a difference when their staff has a place to go and renew, and they’re not as burned out because it’s a biophilic space. Leadership starts to see it makes economic sense. It makes moral sense. It’s good for business, and it’s good for humanity. 

Can Spaces Heal?

Natalia: So, can space be healing? Do we know how to create spaces that can heal? It’s still not a mainstream idea today. How to design meaningful spaces which positively affect our health and wellbeing without being too prescriptive? We are discussing biophilic design, but is it the only way?

Susan: I think biophilia was such an obvious solution all along because we’ve lived outside forever. It makes sense to bring nature indoors. It’s wild, but even plastic plants can have an impact. I’ve seen hospitals with plastic plants, battery-operated candles, and piped-in smell of pine, where people still felt better. And so, it’s vital to recognize nature’s enormous role and influence.

urban thinkscape
Urban Thinkscape by Hume. Image: Sahar Coston-Hardy.

But it’s also just the tip of the iceberg. We now know more and more about sound, color, texture, and materiality. They all have a tremendous impact on our physiology and our psychology. They are ingredients that we can mix and match to achieve different outcomes. And that’s the space for the architect’s creativity.

We know that specific light sources and certain types of light have hugely different effects. We know that different sounds have a huge impact. When we’re looking to create a quiet space for children with autism, we can now say: “Here are some things that we know about color, here are some things that we know about light, here are some things we know about curvature, here are some things we know about texture.”

Another super important piece is culture. We have to make sure that culture and lived experience are factors in how we design because if we take that out, we take out a lot of humanity and a lot of history. And that marries to the next point – personalization and participation. We want to ensure the people we are designing with are always at the table and driving the conversations.

Maggie’s Leeds Centre by Heatherwick Studio. Image: Hufton + Crow Photography

I love that you shared your story about working at a user experience department, Michal. Because sometimes, we think we know what a person or community needs, but who we’re designing for has to be intricately involved at every stage. So that when the spaces are finished, there is an authentic sense of ownership. I don’t think we’ve got that quite calibrated yet in practice.

Natalia: You mentioned that you have just released a book with Ivy Ross called Your Brain on Art. What is it about?

You Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross

Susan: The book addresses different areas of our lives, such as wellbeing, mental health, physical health, learning, community, and the arts of the future. We also introduce the role of technology as a cultural driver and change catalyst. I don’t mean just technical assistance but how it influences and amplifies research, how we can study spaces, how we design more immersive and sensory spaces, and so much more.

We talk a lot about what the future, this hybrid world we’re moving into rapidly, may look like. We look at what are the opportunities for these hybrid experiences in all areas, including learning, health, community building, and flourishing.

Michal: Are there some specific places or projects where some of the knowledge we are discussing was already successfully applied? Could you give us some positive examples?

Susan: The list is long, but I’m impressed with the approach to architecture and design that Maggie’s Centers for cancer care have taken. For example, they have worked with Heatherwick architects, who listened to the patients and their families, and then designed their spaces with regard to their lived experience.

Tye Farrow has just finished a hospital in Israel that is really attuned to nature, a very nurturing space. On the artistic side of things, Refik Anadol is doing an AI translation algorithm into art and projecting that onto buildings. And I would also highlight Itai Palti’s project in Philadelphia called Urban Thinkscape, created around the idea of playful learning.

There are so many amazing architects and designers. I am excited about the future of design, where we continue to marry the arts and sciences to create new ways to work together to create even more intentional spaces for all.

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