Colette Brown, a 25-year-old researcher and artist, leads a ceramics class at Long Beach Senior Arts Colony. She teaches students — whose average age is 77 — as a part of the colony’s EngAGE program, a nonprofit that provides various workshops, classes and learning opportunities to senior citizens.

Participants shape, fire and create ceramic art pieces and objects, but may also, however, be performing a special form of brain exercise. To further explore this concept, Brown is currently leading a research project called The Mind is Muscle, a three-month art workshop for which Brown recruited a number of senior citizens, many from her ceramics class.

A New Approach

“Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth-leading cause of death in people over age 65 in the U.S.,” said Brown in her recent talk at TEDx Mission Viejo. The event, made up of talks surrounding a common theme, aimed to bring people together in an experience similar to the larger TED conference. “Our older adult population is expected to double within the next 15 years. So, now, more than ever, we have this incredible need to sustain functionality and well-being throughout the lifespan.”

While many studies have examined the role of art as a therapeutic measure for people with dementia, Brown is interested in art’s preventative potential. The Mind is a Muscle project looks at how artistic questions and creative projects affect neuroplasticity — or the brain’s ability to change and adapt, increasing or decreasing one’s capacity for learning. She likens the brain to a bucket that has the ability to hold more or less as you age.

“I’m exploring art as a form of problem solving, a form of critical thinking, and keeping the brain active in ways that will exercise it,” she said. “The focus is on the literal health of your brain.”

The Mind is a Muscle workshop took place at CSULB’s Centro Salud es Cultura. Participants experimented with various mediums and techniques, answering questions about their creative choices along the way. In one project, they had to take an ordinary object and rename it, then explain their choice. In another, they translated their everyday routines into movements in front of a camera, often transforming into a sort of dance performance.

The project is being funded by a grant from the Arts Council for Long Beach, and Brown is now evaluating the results. She hopes to complete the project by summer and get the results published. In the meantime, participants’ artworks from the workshop were curated and put on display for an exhibit called “Connections” at the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony with the help of EngAGE.

Art as Exercise

“We’ve really seen participants find a second life in art,” said EngAGE Program Director Helene Weinberg, adding that Brown’s work aligns well with EngAGE’s programming. “Active aging is really important.”

“I know it’s important,” agreed Ethel Gross, 86, a Long Beach Senior Arts Colony resident who participated in The Mind is a Muscle. She’s taken on a number of personal projects as well, including repainting and repurposing a vintage chair into a Vincent van Gogh-style art piece. “I’ve seen what happens when people participate in art and use their minds. It changes you completely.”

Brown took to the TEDx Mission Viejo stage in October 2016 to unveil The Mind is a Muscle to a wider audience, joining 14 other speakers from around Southern California ranging from doctors to artists like Brown and another Long Beach native, Tiffany Dawn Hasse. The event’s theme was Perception, and Brown’s talk, “How Art May Alter the Face of Dementia,” dove into the intersections of neuroscience, aging, communication, entropy, art and life.

“The creation and existence of art is propelled by inquiry,” she said in the talk. “This is the crucial mechanism that may help buffer against cognitive decline.”

Brown continues to lead the ceramics class at EngAGE while working through her art-based cognitive research. She plans to apply for graduate school this year.

“Art is an avenue for critical thought and discussion,” she said. “It’s easy to go through life and not pay attention to what is influencing us. I like art because it’s a way of seeing. It’s a way of paying attention.”

To learn more about Brown’s work and see her TEDx talk, visit tedxmissionviejo.com.

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