Creative Brainwaves: Creative Arts Improving Brain Health

Atlantic Fellow Karen Meenan tells us about a series of talks and workshops she curated that explored how engaging in creative arts can improve your brain health.

brain illustration with paint splash

As an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health and theater and radio producer, I am passionate about the power of dementia-inclusive creative aging and the interrelationship between the arts and brain health. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to curate and lead a recent program of events that featured members of the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) community along with dementia-inclusive dancers, singers, musicians, poets, writers and artists.

Taking part in creative arts projects has been proven by neuroscientists and researchers to improve overall brain health and cognition.  This five-week public event series, which had a special welcome for people living with dementia and their caregivers, was designed to combine the science behind good brain health practices with fun ways to learn. The result was laughter, joy, and a real sense of community.  Audiences of 100+ gathered each week at the LexIcon—a public library and cultural centre in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland—to meet Atlantic Fellows and faculty members from GBHI and to learn the importance of finding ways to improve overall brain health:

  • Week one: Brian Lawlor, Site Director of GBHI in Trinity College Dublin opened the series with a presentation showing how integral creative artists are to the fellowship program at GBHI. Norah Walsh, choral director of dementia inclusive The Forget-Me-Nots choir inspired the audience with an engaging physical and vocal warm-up. While Atlantic Fellow Mike Hanrahan, musician, performer and singer shared a personal story about his mother, who had vascular dementia, and treated participants to a rendition of ‘A River Rolls On’—a piece he composed for her.
  • Week two had a focus on the links between tinnitus, hearing, balance and dance.  GBHI faculty member Sven Vanneste led this session with a talk about hearing loss which he highlighted as one of the main risk factors for dementia. Atlantic Fellow Anusha Yasoda-Mohan demonstrated a Bollywood style ‘Ear Dance’ showing the various parts of the ear and how sound waves travel to our brains. Choreographer and award-winning dancer Olwyn Lyons gave a ‘scarf dance’ workshop which allowed all members of the audience including those with limited mobility to perform the Passo Doble.  
  • Week three: Ian Robertson, Founding Director of GBHI at Trinity College led week three with a presentation on the importance of writing and storytelling for improved brain health. Award winning poet Ron Carey recited poems from his third collection ‘Songs for Older Life’ while performer Frances Elliott regaled the audience with ‘Matilda’ and ‘I Don’t Know’. Michael Carey wrapped-up the evening with a recitation of a poem he wrote for his sister—he started writing poetry at the age of 75—he’s 88 now. So you’re never too old to become a creative artist.
  • Week four was led by Anne-Marie Glynn, Chief Operations Officer at GBHI, Trinity College who explored global collaborations between Atlantic Fellows who are creative artists and their connections with the scientific and medical communities in GBHI. Celebrated poet Tony Curtis shared music, song and poetry while illustrator Caroline Hyland gave a workshop on dementia-inclusive art ‘Do you See what I See’.
  • Week five: The final week commenced with a presentation about the importance of culture for improved brain health by Agustín Ibáñez, GBHI faculty member and Atlantic Fellow.  He was joined by music therapist Róisín Hayes who demonstrated how singing and playing musical instruments can improve balance, cognition and lung function. Dr Kevin Quaid, who lives with Lewy body dementia, spoke about his advocacy work and the importance of writing to improve his brain health.  His wife and spousal caregiver Helena Quaid finished this series sharing tips on how to cope with a dementia diagnosis and how to improve the life of a caregiver.

Feedback from the five-week series was excellent with many participants commenting that the combination of science with practical experiences of dancing, singing and making music really helped to reinforce the message that taking part in creative arts is in fact good for overall brain health.  Thanks were offered to Dún Laoghaire Libraries, Age Friendly Ireland, Creative Ireland and GBHI for supporting this wonderful initiative.  A repeat is planned in 2024. 

creative brainwaves 2023 brain hearing slide
creative brainwaves 2023 dancing

Atlantic Fellow and neuroscientist Anusha Yasoda-Mohan presenting and leading a dance with participants on October 18th.

Creative Brainwaves 8th Nov 2023 speakers
Creative Brainwaves 8th Nov 2023 Róisín Hayes music therapist

Left: November 8th speakers Róisín Hayes, Karen Meenan, Kevin Quaid, Helena Quaid and Agustín Ibáñez Right: Róisín Hayes speaking to attendees.