Arts and Cognition Monograph: Summary

March, 2008

By Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D., University of California at Santa Barbara

In 2004, the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium brought together cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities across the United States to grapple with the question of why arts training has been associated with higher academic performance. Is it simply that smart people are drawn to “do” art—to study and perform music, dance, drama—or does early arts training cause changes in the brain that enhance other important aspects of cognition?

The consortium can now report findings that allow for a deeper understanding of how to define and evaluate the possible causal relationships between arts training and the ability of the brain to learn in other cognitive domains.

The research includes new data about the effects of arts training that should stimulate future investigation. The preliminary conclusions we have reached may soon lead to trustworthy assumptions about the impact of arts study on the brain; this should be helpful to parents, students, educators, neuroscientists, and policymakers in making personal, institutional, and policy decisions.

Specifics of each participating scientist’s research program are detailed in the appended reports that can be downloaded from Here is a summary of what the group has learned:

1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.

2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.

3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.

4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.

5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.

6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.

7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.

8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

The foregoing advances our knowledge about the relationship between arts and cognition. These advances constitute a first round of a neuroscientific attack on the question of whether arts training changes the brain to enhance general cognitive capacities. The question is of such wide interest that, as with some organic diseases, insupportable answers gain fast traction and then ultimately boomerang.

This is the particular difficulty of correlations; the weakness and even spuriousness of some correlational studies led to the creation of the consortium. Correlation accompanies, parallels, complements or reciprocates, and is interesting to observe, but only an understanding of mechanisms drives action and change.

Although scientists must constantly warn of the need to distinguish between correlation and causation, it is important to realize that neuroscience often begins with correlations—usually, the discovery that a certain kind of brain activity works in concert with a certain kind of behavior. But in deciding what research will be most productive, it matters whether these correlations are loose or tight. Many of the studies cited here tighten up correlations that have been noted before, thereby laying the groundwork for unearthing true causal explanations through understanding biological and brain mechanisms that may underlie those relationships.

Moreover, just as correlations may be tight or loose, causation may also be strong or weak. Theoretically, we could claim a broad causation, akin to “smoking causes cancer,” with randomized prospective trials showing that children taking arts training can improve certain cognitive scores. Yet, even such a clear-cut result would be weak causation, because we would not have found even one brain mechanism of learning that could suggest progress in understanding such mechanisms to guide optimal arts exposure. Nor would we have found by what mechanisms the brain generalizes that learning, nor anything about developmental periods where the brain is particularly sensitive to growth from specific types of experience.

A vast area of valuable research lies between tight correlation and hard evidence based causal explanations. Theory-driven questions using cognitive neuroscience methods can go beyond efficacy-of-outcome measures by framing experiments that demonstrate how changes in the brain, as a result of arts training, enrich a person’s life, and how this experience is transferred to domains that enhance academic learning. Such mid-ground studies would significantly advance our knowledge even though they are not at the level of cellular or molecular explanations.

The consortium work on dance is a good example. Our research indicates that dance training can enable students to become highly successful observers. We found that learning to dance by watching alone can be highly successful and that the success is sustained at the neural level by a strong overlap between brain areas that are used for observing actions and also for making actual movements. These shared neural substrates are critical for organizing complex actions into sequential structure. In the future we can test if this skill in effective observation will transfer to other academic domains.

Nailing down causal mechanisms in the complex circuitry of the brain is a tall order. The arts and cognition studies by the Dana consortium during the past three years lay a foundation for understanding the mechanisms needed for action; we believe they offer the validity essential for the future studies that will build on them.

A life-affirming dimension is opening up in neuroscience; to discover how the performance and appreciation of the arts enlarge cognitive capacities will be a long step forward in learning how better to learn and more enjoyably and productively to live. We offer several suggestions for extensions of the research reported herein:

1. Previous work has established that different neural networks are involved in various forms of the arts such as music, visual arts, drama and dance. Future studies should examine the degree to which these networks are separate and overlap.

2. We also require evidence of how high motivation to pursue an art form will lead to more rapid changes in that network and must find out to what degree such changes may influence other forms of cognition.

3. The links between music and visual arts training and specific aspects of mathematics such as geometry need to be more profoundly explored with advanced imaging methods.

4. The link between intrinsic motivation for a specific art (e.g. music and visual arts) and sustained attention to tasks involving that art needs to be followed up with increased behavioral evidence and imaging methods that can demonstrate that changes in specific pathways are greater for higher levels of motivation.

5. The search for individual indicators of interest in and influence by training in the arts should continue to be examined by a combination of appropriate questionnaire research, use of candidate genes already identified and whole genome scans.

6. Further research also should pose these questions:

    a. To what degree is the link between music training, reading and sequence learning causative? If it is causative, does it involve shaping of connectivity between areas of the brain network involved?

    b. Is the link between music and drama training and memory methods a causative one? If so, can we use brain imaging to determine the mechanism?

    c. What is the role of careful observation and imitation in the performing arts? Can we prepare our motor system for complex dance movements by simply observing or imagining desired movements? Does the discipline and cognitive skill to achieve this goal transfer?

The consortium’s accomplishments to date have included bringing together some of the leading cognitive neuroscientists in the world to sort out correlative observations on the arts and cognition, and to begin the analysis of whether these relationships are causal. The consortium’s new findings and conceptual advances have clarified what now needs to be done. The specific suggestions noted above grow out of the project’s efforts—and surely others are possible as well. These suggestions represent a further deepening of a newly accessible field of investigation. Fresh results as well as new ideas are presented herein on how to continue to research this topic.

In my judgment, this project has identified candidate genes involved in the predisposition to the arts and has also shown that cognitive improvements can be made to specific mental capacities such as geometric reasoning; that specific pathways in the brain can be identified and potentially changed during training; that sometimes it is not structural brain changes but rather changes in cognitive strategy that help solve a problem; and that early targeted music training may lead to better cognition through an as yet unknown neural mechanism. That is all rather remarkable and challenging.

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