Learning, Arts, and the Brain: A Conversation with Michael S. Gazzaniga
A Conversation with Michael S. Gazzaniga


by Carolyn Asbury

May 22, 2008

Michael Gazzaniga - Thumbnail
Michael S. Gazzaniga is director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind and its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience. He serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dr. Gazzaniga led the three-year, seven-university consortium that issued the report “Learning, Arts, and the Brain.”

What prompted the Arts and Cognition Consortium research?

We have seen several tantalizing studies over the years reporting an association between arts training and higher academic performance. Here is the question: Does this association occur simply because smart people are drawn to particular art forms? Or does early training in the arts actually cause changes in the brain that enhance other cognitive functions? The question is of tremendously widespread interest. And it has attracted such fierce defenders of either explanation.

Now that neuroscience is developing exquisite tools— particularly ways of imaging the brain to begin to study neural networks involved in cognition—the Dana Foundation wanted to spur top scientists to examine this question. So we assembled some leading cognitive neuroscientists to pose key ways of studying this question.

Did you find direct evidence, then, that training in any of the performing arts causes improvements in other cognitive skills?

No, we are not yet at the point of being able to determine causation. What many of the studies did find were strong correlations between arts training and several cognitive functions. Designing and carrying out cause-and-effect studies requires that we be able to randomly assign schoolchildren to an experimental and “control” group, provide— let’s say music—training only to the experimental group, and compare that group’s cognitive test scores and brain images to those of the control group. That’s a hard thing to get schools to agree to do.

Tell us about the major correlations that consortium members found.

Let’s start with the potential role of attention as described in Dr. Michael Posner’s research at the University of Oregon. First, he has evidence that specific brain networks are involved in learning different art forms. He begins with the premise that some children are especially open to—interested in—one or more forms of art. By the way, he speculates that differences in children’s openness to an art may have a genetic component, and genetic studies have begun to yield some candidate genes.

If a child is open to a specific art form, and receives training in it, the child will develop strong motivation to sustain attention to learn it. With highly sustained attention, according to Posner’s research, the child essentially walls out competing things, and the child’s cognitive abilities are generally enhanced.

Interestingly, his colleague at Oregon, Dr. Helen Neville, found evidence that attention may be the common factor that accounted for improved cognitive test scores in children in three groups of special Head Start classes: those who received music training, those who received training in how to focus their attention, and those who received regular Head Start instruction but in a smaller class size. So, classroom exposure to various arts in children who are open to one or more art forms may prove to be an important way to strengthen their abilities to focus attention in general.

Was music training correlated with other cognitive abilities?

Absolutely. Intensive music training was strongly linked to children’s skills in geometric reasoning, according to Dr. Elizabeth Spelke’s research at Harvard. This mathematics skill, which is essential for architects, engineers, astronomers and others, is one of three basic systems that underlie ability in mathematics.

Additionally, a striking correlation was found between music training and reading acquisition. Dr. Brian Wandell of Stanford found that the amount of music training children had in the first year of his three-year study directly correlated with the amount of improvements in children’s reading fluency over those three years. He also found that the children with music training also demonstrated better phonological awareness, which is one of the central predictors of early literacy.

And here is where brain imaging has been really contributive to our understanding of this correlation. Using diffusion tensor imaging, he found that diffusion in the bundle of nerve axons that connect the brain’s left and right temporal lobes is correlated with all measures of reading ability, but especially phonological awareness.

Another correlation between music training and cognition, specifically memory, was made by Dr. John Jonides at the University of Michigan. His research demonstrated that people intensively trained in music apply rehearsal strategies—essentially cognitive strategies rather than brain changes—to maintain information in working [immediate] and long-term memory more effectively.

What about other performing arts, such as acting?

Dr. Jonides also looked at the effects of training in acting on memory. He similarly found that trained actors don’t have better verbatim memory than us non-actors. Rather, they are better able to extract the general gist from an experience—a cognitive strategy—and this skill is transferable to other verbal cognitive skills.

How about dance?

Dancers can tell you, from experience, that watching an expert is as important as doing the movements yourself, and Dr. Scott Grafton at [the University of California], Santa Barbara’s study not only confirms that association but also provides some evidence of how that might be facilitated by the brain.

He found that learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice. He has identified an “action observation network” in the brain in which there is a neural resonance between observed and embodied actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills, and we are seeing some evidence of this, for instance, in research on stroke rehabilitation.

Based on the evidence to date, do you think educators should make opportunities to expose children to many forms of art and enable them to pursue those that spark an interest?

I’d say certainly. We have evidence suggesting that arts may be a way to strengthen abilities to focus attention that could benefit learning in general. We also have strengthened many correlations between arts training and specific cognitive skills that may be transferable. Until we have cause-and-effect evidence we cannot predict with certainty whether arts training will produce cognitive improvements, but these strengthened correlations provide an important step forward in learning how better to learn. We have instituted educational strategies based on far less.

And one must always remember, one can’t lose with training in the arts. It brings so much to life in terms of enjoyment, metaphor and preparation for the uncertainties of our existence.

If randomized controlled trials are the only way to establish cause and effect, do you think that schools and parents should permit randomization?

As a scientist, yes, and as parent—still yes. But it is complicated. We’re currently in a contradictory situation. Schools are closing arts programs due to budget crunches. So they have made the assumption that a cause-and-effect relationship does not exist. Yet schools and parents do not want, through randomization, to deny children access to arts training [by training some but not others]. Plus, so many children receive arts training outside of school. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we have opportunities to explore existing correlations further at the brain level. Maybe then we’ll be better equipped to deal with these educational dilemmas.

 You can read the full “Learning, Arts, and the Brain" report here.