Brain Scientists Identify Links between Arts, Learning
from Arts Education in the News


by Ben Mauk

May 14, 2009

Music training in childhood improves cognitive abilities, according to research presented May 6 at Johns Hopkins University’s “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” summit in Baltimore. The work presents the most significant evidence yet that arts education can improve learning.

A 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.

The result echoes those of other researchers who are tightening the links between the arts and cognition. Another study presented at the summit found that children who receive training to improve their focus and attention perform better not only on attention tasks but also on intelligence tests. Arts training might similarly affect a wide range of cognitive domains, say researchers.

“It’d be difficult to find another activity [besides music training] that takes up so much real estate in the brain,” said Gottfried Schlaug, a professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School and co-author of the music instruction study.

“Already the initial data we have show profound changes,” he said.

Educators and neuroscientists gathered recently at the Hopkins summit in Baltimore and the subsequent “Learning and the Brain” conference in 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.

Study links music, brain changes

Schlaug and co-author Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, described to the Hopkins group how they 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—areas unrelated to music, such as language, perceptual reasoning or abstract reasoning—but found no difference between the music and nonmusic groups on brain scans or in performance.

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.

Attention and intelligence

Another study presented at the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” summit found what may be far transfer of skills when children received training to improve attention and focus.

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.

“There are brain network associations with each specific art form,” Posner said. “In classroom situations, children can be absorbed by practicing music. 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.

Educators are interested

Several conference attendees, who ranged from teaching artists and schoolteachers to policymakers and scientists, discussed in their presentations potential classroom benefits of the scientific results.

“Artists have been posing these questions since forever,” said Ken Kosik, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Now, “neuroscientists have started to pose these questions in a reasonable way.”

“We need neuroscientists in schools,” he said. “Just like we have teaching hospitals, we need teaching schools.”

Mary Ann Mears, a sculptor and arts advocate, noted that the science must meet a high standard.

“We’re very careful in how we use research,” she said during a panel discussion at the May 6 summit titled “Implications of Research for Educational Practice.”

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance and arts education director at the Dana Foundation, expressed hope that educators would use neuroscience’s increasingly detailed understanding of the arts and learning to develop practical classroom strategies.

“Now that the research has gotten to a certain point,” she said, “the question is really: How do we make better use of this information, and replicate it more, and share it more, and make sure it is in the classroom in a credible way?”

Both the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” summit and the “Learning and the Brain” conference were sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.

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