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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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