Attention May Link Arts and Intelligence

by Aalok Mehta

May 11, 2009

Arts training can cause dramatic changes in the brain, including possibly strengthening the “attention network,” a series of regions linked to general intelligence, scientists have discovered.

The experts speaking at the “Learning, Arts and the Brain” educational summit this past week said evidence is growing that skills built practicing the arts can cross into other mental domains. The event, held May 6 at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, was hosted by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and sponsored in part by the Dana Foundation.

During the summit, neuroscientists, educators and arts advocates learned the latest science on how practice in the arts affects the brain, as well as how art education is currently practiced in various public schools. The more than 300 people attending then discussed in small groups and a full forum how best to apply the science to improve teaching and learning in the schools and which directions researchers should follow next.

The research presented at the forum builds on previous studies, including the work of the seven groups of scientists involved in the Dana Arts & Cognition consortium, that shows tight correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities. The new findings—especially how effective attention training can be in classroom settings—also offer insight into potential new teaching methods for younger students.

When children underwent simple, interactive attention training, “not only did attention improve, but also generalized parts of intelligence related to fluid intelligence and IQ increased,” said Michael Posner, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

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Michael Posner 
Posner’s work builds upon surveys and tests of children that found that brain scans of those who exhibit high levels of “effortful control,” or self-regulation—the ability to avoid distraction and focus on a single task—show greater activity in their attention network.

This finding offers a tentative explanation for common anecdotal reports that academic performance improves in schools that boost their arts programs, he said. Different art forms, such as music or dance, activate quite distinct neural networks. But if kids remain open to the experience and stay interested, all the art forms seem to interact with the attention network.

“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,” Posner said.

“Performance or practice of any of the art forms changes the neural networks performing that art form. There is very little dispute about the existence of these networks and that they change with practice,” he added. “Years of neuroimaging have now given us a plausible or putative mechanism by which arts training could now influence cognition, including attention and IQ.”

Musical training alters brain connections

Gottfried Schlaug, who is helping conduct a study comparing children who took up an instrument with children who didn’t, echoed Posner’s comments. Using diffusion tensor imaging, a brain scanning method that can map the white-matter connections among brain areas, he found that musical training can quickly produce significant changes in children’s brains. Just 15 months of training, for instance, caused thickening of the fibers in finger-movement areas and sound-processing areas, as well as increased activity in the temporal lobe, frontal lobe and cerebellum.

“Already the initial data we have show profound changes,” said Schlaug, a neurology professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. “This is the first study that shows brain plasticity in young children as a function of instrumental music instruction, and this is correlated with the amount of practice.” The research was reported March 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Many of these regions are related to tasks important to math and other subjects, he added, pointing out specifically the inferior frontal gyrus. "Math and music activate some of the same areas," he said. But in the first 15 months of the study’s data, the results show only near transfer, or improvement in brain functions directly associated with music. The researchers did not see evidence of far transfer, or better performance on distantly related abilities such as mental rotation and geometric ability in the first year and a half of training. But the study continued for four years, and the scientists are still analyzing the final years of data.

“Is there going to be far transfer later on or not? We don’t know,” said Schlaug’s study colleague Ellen Winner, a psychology professor at Boston College. It may be that the researchers’ tests were not sensitive enough to detect small improvements, she said The study also is “messy,” she said, with half the participants eventually dropping out.

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Elizabeth Spelke 

However, Elizabeth Spelke, a psychology professor at Harvard University, offered another indication  that such far transfer occurs, at least for music and math.

Previously, she had discovered that math skill is not one single thing, but rather revolves around three abilities, recognizing objects, numerical sense and geometrical sense. Spelke also had found that children with moderate or intense music training—but not just a little training—showed “small but reliable increases” only on abilities revolving around geometry.

Now she and colleagues have demonstrated that even 4-month-olds seem to inherently connect geometry with sound. The infants learned to associate long tones with long cartoon worms and short tones with short worms, but they never could figure out a situation in which the tone and image did not match. . Likewise, the infants associated high-pitched tones with worms placed at the top of a screen, and low-pitched tones with worms on the bottom of the screen, but not the incongruent situations. "From the beginning of life, if an infants hears music, the melodic processing may lead to new forms of visual processing," Spelke said. "This may form the basis for the relationship between math and music later on."

“This [result] is enough of a possibility that it gives us another reason to pursue an arts curriculum,” Spelke said.

Brian Wandell, a Stanford University psychology and electrical engineering professor, outlined studies that mapped white matter, the fibers connecting different areas of the brain. His and others’ work has shown the importance of the corpus callosum for phonological awareness, a key skill in reading, he said. And new work shows that fibers connecting two specific parts of the parietal lobe, the anterior superior and longitudinal fasciculus, are very specific to a person’s accuracy at approximating numbers. This was true only in the left hemisphere and did not hold true for adjacent fiber bundles. "These are the parts of the brain we might focus on during training studies," he said.

"We're hoping these kinds of studies can inform you when you ask your questions," about where researchers should focus their work to best help teachers, he told the audience.

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Researcher Elizabeth Spelke, left, and  educator Alice Wilder ("Blues Clues," "SuperWhy!') participate in small-group discussions on what questions researchers should try to answer about the effect of arts and practicing the arts on the brain and cognition during the Learning, Arts, and the Brain conference at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on May 6, 2009.