Neuroeducation: Prolegomenon
Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain

November, 2009

A Prolegomenon*

By William Safire, Chairman, the Dana Foundation 
When they get around to remaking the 1974 movie The Graduate, the key word whispered into the young man’s ear as the secret to success in the coming generation won’t be “plastics!” The word in the updated version will be “circuits!”

An early user of that word in its scientific sense was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin described his experiments in electricity in several letters to Peter Collinson, a friend and Fellow of the Royal Society who lived in London. Collinson and others in London thought Franklin’s letters contained valuable information, so in 1751 they published them in a book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity.

Today, neuroscientists—having used the recent leaps in imaging technology to discover and map the regions of the brain dedicated to perceiving, reacting, remembering, thinking, and judging— are delving into the connectivity among the brain’s universe of neurons. In cognitive neuroscience—the study of how the brain learns, stores, and then uses the information it acquires—circuitry has become an ever more exciting challenge.

Because cognition is rooted in the Latin word for knowledge, educators also have a great stake in the idea of circuits. In great universities and in elementary classrooms, the constricted “stovepipe” departments of the past have given way to interdis­ciplinary approaches. Such connectivity in teaching gives memorable context to learning; equally important, it spurs student creativity. Subjects cross over each other, transferring skills and knowledge, figuratively as they do in the brain.

Let’s now apply the metaphor of circuitry to the book in your hand. A circuit has been forming over the past two decades, relatively unremarked, between cognitive neuroscience—the science of learning—and the practitioners of education. What was needed to close the knowledge circuit—to give a jolt of energy to the trend toward neuroeduca­tion—was a field of experimentation familiar and accessible to both disciplines, one that would dispel a sometimes inbuilt mutual wariness.

One connection that presented itself was an area of controversy: the impact of training in the arts—music, dance, drama, painting—on the brains of children. Did intensive study of the piano or violin at an early age have an effect on the brain that would near transfer to motor skills, or even far transfer to the ability to solve math­ematical problems? Did dance training increase an aptitude for geometric patterns, ultimately leading to high marks in architecture or interior design? Beyond such specific effects on related academic areas, did rigorous arts training enable the student to better concentrate on any subject? Of course, correlations between, say, music and mathematics talents have long been apparent, but as skeptical scientists rightly pointed out, correla­tion is not causation.

The neuroeducation circuit has gradually been forming across the country, including the University of California, Santa Barbara; the University of California, Irvine; Harvard; and several smaller colleges. Nowhere has it been more impressive than the explosive start made at The Johns Hopkins School of Education, under the leadership of Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D., Susan Magsamen, and Guy McKhann, M.D. In the coming decade we shall see how further scientific findings strengthen and reaffirm the new science of learning.