Interview: In DIALOGUE // Susan Magsamen
Susan Magsamen is the executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), a cross-disciplinary initiative from the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine dedicated to advancing the study of “neuroaesthetics,’” an area of research that explores the impact of music, architecture, digital media and the arts on our brains, biology, and behavior. As an author, entrepreneur, and thought pioneer, Susan has more than 35 years of experience helping translate discoveries from academic research into impactful, practical applications that benefit humanity. In our conversation, we discuss the importance of aesthetic experience in shaping our relationship with the world.
Voices: Susan Magsamen, on Neuroaesthetics and the Potential of Curiosity
RIMMA BOSHERNITSAN: Let’s start with your childhood. Where did you grow up?
SUSAN MAGSAMEN: I grew up in semi-rural Maryland, mostly in the county outside of Baltimore. My family moved every five years, which resulted in me becoming both highly adaptive to change and determined to find ways to feel safe and secure while still exploring.
RB: Being “determined to find ways to feel safe and secure while still exploring” strikes me as a profound skill to have learned so young, and it also seems to encapsulate much of the themes of your work. Did seeking that balance as a child contribute to how you approach relationships? Do you feel like your formative environments—both in terms of family and literal landscapes—helped put you on your career path, in terms of neuroaesthetics or how you value inclusion and collaboration?
SM: Yes, in a variety of ways. Growing up, I was very fortunate I had constant access to nature, and a family who recognized its importance to me and encouraged adventuring: if I wanted to walk in the woods, run through a field, or follow a stream, I almost always could. We may have moved a lot, but we never moved away from nature. Being able to feel a part of something both a little wild and yet not all that separate from myself, regardless of where we lived or what house we called “home,” was tremendously comforting and helped me feel present and connected.
I come from a fairly big family. I’m one of five daughters, and I’m also a twin. Growing up in a boisterous household filled with strong personalities meant being part of an ongoing conversation and being surrounded by many, many differing opinions and ideas. With so many points of view in play, learning how to listen well to different voices was very important.
Being a twin has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I navigate the world: I’m not a “me” person, but a “we” person. As a twin, I was born in collaboration. Throughout my whole life, I’ve never felt that “separate” and “together” were important in terms of creating or understanding ideas. I’ve never not been ‘in relationship’, and I think that’s why I came to collaboration and interdisciplinary work so easily.
RB: Do you have any specific memory—positive or negative—that has affected your path toward neuroaesthetics?
SM: When I was 5 months old, I needed surgery to remove a hemangioma on my breast. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous surgery, but in those days the anesthesia they used had a terrible odor. As I was healing, my body was held down and restrained (ostensibly to protect me from pulling off bandages), and I was alone in the hospital, without my twin or my sisters or my parents. I have very visceral, pre-verbal memories of that whole experience and environment.
Consequently, in part I think this is a big reason why aesthetic experiences really, really matter to me. Certain smells will cause me to abruptly leave a room. If someone tries to hold my arms tightly—not in anger or aggression, but just too tightly—I push away. I do not like to be in tight spaces, and I know all of these examples relate back to that early childhood experience.
Our bodies remember everything that happens to us, and what they remember changes us on a cellular level. Just because you do not have a conscious memory of something from early childhood does not mean that you do not have a keen cellular memory—you do, and that stays with you.
RB: For those of us who might know the word or are familiar with the term but lack its backstory, could you briefly explain how the field of neuroasesthetics was developed?
SM: In 1999, British neurobiologist Semir Zeki coined the term neuroaesthetics to describe the scientific attempt to find, what he called, a “biological basis of aesthetic experience.” Zeki was one of the first researchers to apply advanced brain-science methodologies to the experience of visual art, and he’s often credited with turning neuroaesthetics into a recognized field of scientific study. The field has rapidly advanced as our ability to look inside the brain has grown exponentially, and more noninvasive biomarkers have been developed.
RB: Neuroaesthetics is a relatively young field and seems to mirror significant advances in science and technology.. However coincidental this relationship may be, it seems almost fated—these fields have so much opportunity to inform and advance each other. Why do you think we’re now in a particularly potent time for neuroaesthetics and bringing its discoveries to the greater world?
SM: The need for new approaches to our global problems is more urgent than ever before, and we finally have proof that the arts are the missing piece, acting as a catalyst for innovation and new approaches. Technology has improved our lives and amplified our potential in many ways. Basic science is rapidly discovering how our brains and bodies work. Art enlivens all the senses and makes us feel, connecting us to our deeper selves and our emotions, to our communities, and to the whole of the human family. Together, technology, science and the arts offer unprecedented and unparalleled solutions to many of humanity’s most complex issues.
RB: You are an emphatic advocate for the arts as tools of healing, both as part of your work with the IAM Lab and in various other contexts. Did you have any direct experience growing up that helped inform this?
SM: Yes. When my twin sister, Sandra, and I were in the fourth grade, she had a really serious accident which resulted in a compound fracture in her leg. The healing and recovery process was long. It required her to be kept home for a year. She found her way into an art class, where she started to paint. Painting was huge for her—not just for her healing but for the rest of her life. Painting was the tool that helped her cope so well with being immobilized because she had found her calling. She became an artist, as well as an art therapist and author. Witnessing this kind of healing/creative awakening-through-art in my sister very much affected me, particularly because it happened to my twin. Throughout my life I have seen the power of the arts and creative problem solutions inform virtually every field -- marrying our evolutionary intuition with other forms of knowledge.
RB: You’re also a mother. Being aware of how transformative early aesthetic experiences and environments were in shaping your own identity must have affected you as a parent, especially since you were raising children while actively helping develop neuroaesthetics as a field. Have you integrated neuroaesthetics into your parenting, either consciously or unconsciously?
SM: Maybe not in those exact words, but it certainly informed some things—especially with regard to handling transitions. I have four children, two from my first marriage and two from my second. My first marriage ended when our children were still quite young, but it was tremendously amicable. We effectively had the perfect divorce. My ex-husband bought the house next door and we built a path between our two so our boys would have continuity, in terms of home. We called it “Launch and Re-entry.” To ease the transition from home-to-home, we slowed things down and made an actual place out of “Launch and Re-entry” to help everyone adjust, and it worked. Making a conceptual space for change and adaptation is one thing, and it’s very important, but demarcating a “place” and naming it was much more impactful for our children.
RB: At what point in your life or career did it become clear that an interdisciplinary approach was essential for your research and its application?
SM: It always has been that way. I have immersed myself in understanding many ways of seeing the same thing for my entire life, starting with my childhood. Life is messy and we will not be able to solve big issues in society without playing in the sand and exploring, creating and experimenting. Curiosity is a big driver for me. I’ve always wanted to understand not only what others are thinking but why they are thinking it.
RB: Regarding “curiosity”— the names of your two startups feature variations of the word—would you say it’s vital to you and your way of being and working?
SM: Yes! I love curiosity! It has gotten me into trouble. It’s also been my salvation. I think curiosity is vital to everyone, and it’s very important to keep that truth close and active, to encourage it in one another, and to encourage it in our children.
So much curiosity gets stamped out, numbed out, and policed out of people even before they’re really aware that it happened or that something is missing. It occurs so early, when they’re just kids. Shame is a big part of it. If a child is denied the right to ask questions or discouraged from exploring things that interest them, or if an encouraging space for growth and engaged curiosity is not part of their environment, they lose tremendously. And then, by extension, so does the world. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can do better.
RB: Would you say that, in some way, your career and most recently your work with the IAM Lab is predicated upon creating/nurturing, as you said, “space for growth and engaged curiosity?”
SM: Yes, absolutely yes. Helping facilitate human connection by creating both literal and figurative spaces for collaboration and discourse is vital to my work and to whom I am. In a way, my whole life’s work is about finding or creating and then nurturing those kinds of spaces and places. Sometimes, it’s just a question of naming them, or demarcating an area between ideas and fields. I learned how to listen to a wide array of voices early on in my life, and I put that skill to use every day. Like with Impact Thinking , the possibility was already there but we needed to give a space, a place and a name for it.
RB: Interdisciplinary thinking/making/being is profoundly important to you, as a thinker/researcher/entrepreneur and as a person in the world. Do you feel like there are places where a mainstream understanding of interdisciplinarity and/or the value of different voices is lacking?
SM: Yes! Absolutely. That’s one of the principal reasons I’ve really wanted to help develop a consensus framework model. The impetus for Impact Thinking, at least for me, may have arisen from a conversation with my mom, but it was the conversations I started having with my colleagues, other researchers/thinkers/artists/scientists/futurists, that helped galvanize it. In brief, Impact Thinking isn’t just about talking but doing. It requires us to acknowledge that intention changes everything.
RB: Could you elaborate on Impact Thinking? What does it mean and how does it work?
SM: With Impact Thinking, the model is a consensus framework, which really just means that the field is adopting the same approach to rigorous translational science and that we have a common language. We know what efficacy looks like and what the steps should be, and we know what kind of research or technologies should be there—and we’re finding that Impact Thinking is really a dynamic model. We look at any problem through the lens of art, and we work together to see if we can measure and have an impact.
At the IAM Lab at any given moment there are many kinds of Impact Thinking-informed research initiatives at work, ranging from developing sensory healing spaces with brilliantly gifted architects like Suchi Reddy; our Luminary Scholars program, in which we invite thought leaders/designers/researchers outside the academy to collaborate with us. Our recent collaboration with Google came out of our work with Ivy Ross. The model of Impact Thinking allows us to use the same framework to work with a variety of issues and create research models and dissemination strategies. We created it as a tool for sharing, and we’re delighted it’s now expanding beyond Johns Hopkins in a variety of art forms and interventions.
RB: Is there an origin story behind Impact Thinking, or at least for how your part in developing it occurred?
SM: (Laughs) Yes. Several years ago, I was spending Thanksgiving with my family and was sitting at a table with my mom and four sisters when my mom came out with out with a question: “if you’ve done so much work in these fields, why aren’t these problems solved?” I could not answer her. The question was actually rather profound but the way I experienced it, in that setting, elicited a such a particular feeling of hurt that it stopped me. I kept thinking about it long after dinner had ended. I had to allocate space to sort out the feelings her question brought up, and in doing so, I shifted my whole perspective about work and research, about how we talk to each other in our fields, and also how we don’t. The problems with existing frameworks—like the incentive system of going to conferences, speaking with your immediate research area peer set, and then going back to work—are both big and amorphous, but they don’t have to be. I started thinking about how this very limiting but traditional specialist-to-specialist type of research and discourse might be disrupted, and steering my work to ask questions like, “How do you change situations? How do you have impact? How do you measure impact? How do you know what’s working?” The space I had to create for myself to consider my mother’s question led me on an almost eight-year path of exploration and collaborative discovery which resulted in my work with the IAM Lab and our stated mission to amplify human potential).
RB: In an interview with Dwell magazine, you said art and design have been integral to healing since the dawn of humanity, but only recently recognized in the scientific community because researchers had to catch up and provide data. This really struck me. From all the arts-integrating research the IAM Lab is doing, is there one ancient art form that stands out right now as vital?
SM: What currently really resonates with me more than anything is movement and dance. Movement changes your mood, your perspective—literally, like when you’re a little child and you spin round and round in a circle—and your state of mind. It’s really healing. Dance, in general. is incredibly liberating and it doesn’t even matter what the sound is. You have the opportunity to really lose yourself and just feel. Movement is hugely important for mental health and physical wellbeing! We’ve found that with Parkinson’s disease, patients that have very progressive debilitations move very well with music. Some Parkinson’s patients have taken to dancing 6 or 7 days a week because they feel so good while doing it—and it slows the progressive loss of muscle memory.
So, yes, dance. Dance is as old as humanity. We need it as much as we need each other.
RB: Throughout this conversation, I’ve gathered a sense of underlying optimism from you that is inspiring, particularly because some of your work delves into traditionally pessimistic territory, like terminal illnesses, debilitating mental health conditions, and as-yet-unsolved societal problems. The success of Impact Thinking likely contributes to some of this optimism, but I also get a sense that you have additional reservoirs. Where do you draw hope from? What do you think about collective wisdom, like the idea that there is an imperative need for folks to tap into their humanity?
SM: I think we are at a moment in history where a lot of things aren’t going well in the world, and not just because of politics. We have a devastating opioid crisis on our hands. We’re facing huge shifts in the way we understand technology and the subsequent implications of that change in understanding. Alzheimer’s cases are on the rise and it’s going to be an amazingly difficult financial burden for both the US, and the world. We have displacement, environmental devastation and climate change. We could talk forever about a lot of things that aren’t going well, but if we did that we’d ignore what is beneficial: humanity’s potential to solve those problems. The problems are vast but they aren’t intractable. Collective effort, collective consciousness and collective wisdom are helping steer humanity toward solutions. There are millions of acts of art, beauty and healing compassion in motion all over the world that are being manifested as we speak. They could be sharing a soft blanket or a hug, the act of holding someone’s hand—they could even be held in the space of someone humming. That energy of healing and restoration is happening everywhere, and it’s palpable. We’re all feeling it. It’s not commercial; it isn’t about selling product. It’s a huge, profound, cultural shift, and what makes it exciting is what makes it true: Humanity is coming back because we all need it to survive, and I have nothing but passion for it because it’s at the core of who we are.