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Brain Scientists Identify Links between Arts, Learning

Arts edu­ca­tion influ­ences learn­ing and other areas of cog­ni­tion and may deserve a more promi­nent place in schools, accord­ing to a wave of recent neu­ro­science research.One recent study found that chil­dren who receive music instruc­tion for just 15 months show strength­ened con­nec­tions in musi­cally rel­e­vant brain areas and per­form bet­ter on asso­ci­ated tasks, com­pared with stu­dents who do not learn an instrument.

A sep­a­rate study found that chil­dren who receive train­ing to improve their focus and atten­tion per­form bet­ter not only on atten­tion tasks but also on intel­li­gence tests. Some researchers sug­gest that arts train­ing might sim­i­larly affect a wide range of cog­ni­tive domains. Edu­ca­tors and neu­ro­sci­en­tists gath­ered recently in Bal­ti­more and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to dis­cuss the increas­ingly detailed pic­ture of how arts edu­ca­tion changes the brain, and how to trans­late that research to edu­ca­tion pol­icy and the class­room. Many par­tic­i­pants referred to the results of Dana Foundation-funded research by cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tists from seven lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties over three years, released in 2008.

Art must do some­thing to the mind and brain. What is that? How would we be able to detect that? asked Barry Gor­don, a behav­ioral neu­rol­o­gist and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, who spoke May 8 dur­ing the “Learn­ing and the Brain” con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “Art, I sub­mit to you with­out absolute proof, can improve the power of our minds. How­ever, this improve­ment is hard to detect.”

Study links music, brain changes

Among the sci­en­tists try­ing to detect such improve­ment, Ellen Win­ner, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Boston Col­lege, and Got­tfried Schlaug, a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­ogy at Beth Israel Dea­coness Med­ical Cen­ter and Har­vard Med­ical School, pre­sented research at the “Learn­ing, Arts, and the Brain sum­mit May 6 in Bal­ti­more. Their work mea­sured, for the first time, changes to the brain as a result of music training.

For four years, Win­ner and Schlaug fol­lowed chil­dren ages 9 to 11, some of whom received reg­u­lar music instruc­tion. Before train­ing began, and then at reg­u­lar inter­vals, the researchers tested for whether the train­ing had affected “near trans­fer” domains skills closely related to those directly trained dur­ing music edu­ca­tion, such as fine motor con­trol in the fin­gers and music lis­ten­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion skills. They also tested for any changes in “far trans­fer” domains such as lan­guage and rea­son­ing abilities.

In ini­tial results from data col­lected after 15 months, the researchers found that the stu­dents who received music instruc­tion per­formed much bet­ter in the near trans­fer domains; the two groups of stu­dents had per­formed equally before instruc­tion began. Win­ner and Schlaug also observed strength­ened con­nec­tions in musi­cally rel­e­vant areas of the brain among stu­dents who had received the 15 months of train­ing, com­pared with the non­mu­sic group. These changes cor­re­lated with the children’s behav­ioral improvements.

This is the first study to show brain plas­tic­ity in young chil­dren as a func­tion of instru­men­tal music instruc­tion, Schlaug said. “And this is cor­re­lated with the amount of practice.

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies had shown that the brains of adult musi­cians have struc­tural and func­tional dif­fer­ences from those of non­mu­si­cians, but Win­ner and Schlaug’s inves­ti­ga­tion is the first to exam­ine changes in the devel­op­ing brain in response to long-term music training.“It’d be dif­fi­cult to find another activ­ity that takes up so much real estate in the brain, Schlaug added.

Atten­tion and intelligence

Train­ing can strengthen regions of the brain linked to atten­tion, self-control and gen­eral intel­li­gence, reported Michael Pos­ner, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon. He spec­u­lated that the focus-intensive tasks involved in arts learn­ing might pro­vide some of the same effects.

Years of neu­roimag­ing have now given us a plau­si­ble or puta­tive mech­a­nism by which arts train­ing could now influ­ence cog­ni­tion, includ­ing atten­tion and IQ, he said.

The basic idea of the the­ory is here. There are brain net­work asso­ci­a­tions with each spe­cific art form, Pos­ner said. “In class­room sit­u­a­tions, chil­dren can be absorbed by prac­tic­ing music, he said. “And there are con­se­quences to [the] effort that the child expends. Posner’s research focused on the brain’s exec­u­tive atten­tion net­work, which enables a state of alert­ness and the abil­ity to focus on a task. It is also linked to the self-regulation of impulses in children.

Pos­ner found that chil­dren trained on attention-related tasks have more effec­tive atten­tion net­works and even improved in far trans­fer domains. When chil­dren par­tic­i­pated in train­ing ses­sions specif­i­cally designed to improve atten­tion, “not only did atten­tion improve, but also gen­er­al­ized parts of intel­li­gence related to fluid intel­li­gence and IQ increased, he said.

If con­trolled train­ing can increase atten­tion and gen­eral intel­li­gence, Pos­ner hypoth­e­sized, then per­haps arts train­ing also has a far trans­fer effect.“If we are able to engage chil­dren in an art form for which their brain is pre­pared, and they have an open­ness and cre­ativ­ity, we can train them in this and see improve­ment in atten­tion, as well as intel­li­gence and cog­ni­tion in gen­eral, he said.

The Dana Press has released sev­eral arti­cles about the event, includ­ing: “Atten­tion May Link Arts and Intel­li­gence”, “The Arts Will Help School Account­abil­ity, by Mar­i­ale Hardi­man, assis­tant dean at the John Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity School of Edu­ca­tion; and remarks given by Dr. Jerome Kagan at the event, “Six Good Rea­sons for Advo­cat­ing the Impor­tance of Arts in School.

Nicky Pent­tila is a senior writer and Web edi­tor for Dana Press, part of the Dana Foun­da­tion. The Dana Foun­da­tion is a pri­vate phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion with prin­ci­pal inter­ests in brain sci­ence, immunol­ogy, and arts education.

Related arti­cles:

» Train­ing Atten­tion and Emo­tional Self-Regulation — Inter­view with Michael Posner

» Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cog­ni­tive Development

» Musi­cal train­ing as men­tal exer­cise for cog­ni­tive performance

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