Research Consortium Finds New Evidence Linking Arts and Learning


by Brenda Patoine

March, 2008

Does art make you smart? New research from a consortium at seven universities reveals close correlations between training in the arts and improved math and reading skills. The findings add new scientific support to the observation that children who participate in the arts also do well academically and suggest that changes in attention networks in the brain may be one reason.

Members of this three-year collaboration, the Dana Consortium on Arts and Cognition, did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship—the scientists stopped short of concluding that arts training improves cognition. But the findings illuminate the way for further research and begin to shed light on the neural mechanisms that may underlie the connections.

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Michael Gazzaniga, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, organized the consortium.

As a whole, the discoveries “tighten up” longstanding correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities, said Michael Gazzaniga, organizer of the consortium and director of the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (For a full list of researchers and their areas of emphasis, see the list at right.)

Commenting on the results, Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said, “What we’re seeing here is quantitative scientific data that confirm traditional assumptions about the interrelationship between arts and learning.”

Paying Attention to Arts

Changes in the brain networks that underlie attention emerged as an important focus of the research. Michael Posner of the University of Oregon was one of the consortium members who looked at aspects of attention—which is central to all types of learning.

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Michael Posner  focused on the brain’s attention networks.

One leading theory of how arts training influences cognition posits that children who are interested in an art are motivated to practice their particular art form with focused determination. Motivation leads to sustained attention, which in turn leads to greater efficiency of the brain network involved in attention and to cognitive improvement, according to this hypothesis.

To test the theory, Posner—an internationally recognized expert in the brain’s attention networks—developed a video game with exercises “designed to be interesting and motivating to young children in just the way that we assume arts training to be,” Posner wrote in a report on the research.

Children ages 4 to 7 underwent cognitive testing before and after the game-playing intervention. The researchers also used electroencephalography (EEG) to record electrical activity of the brain, via electrodes placed on the scalp, to determine whether patterns of activity in attention networks in the brain changed as a result of the training.

After five days of training with the video game, the EEG data showed “clear evidence” of improvements in the efficiency of a key attention network in the brain. “When you change that network, you also improve general cognitive capacity, as determined by intelligence tests,” Posner said. The results suggest that “absorbing a child in one of the art forms is one way to train the attentional network,” he said.

Posner’s team has also identified slight variations in genes that predict the efficiency of this attention network. The genes involved help modulate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.  It may be that these gene variants make a child more open to the influences of the environment, including the effects of parental guidance and training, Posner postulated.

Melodies and Math

Consortium member Elizabeth Spelke, a neuropsychologist at Harvard University, tackled the question of whether music training fosters math skills in children and adolescents. She studied three separate groups of children between the ages of 5 and 18, comparing moderate training in music vs. comparable training in sports; intense music training vs. little such training, and intensive training in music vs. similar levels of training in dance, theater, creative writing or visual arts. All participants underwent a series of tests designed to assess core components of mathematical ability.

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Elizabeth Spelke  found that children who studied music intensively did better on certain geometry tasks.

The biggest impact was seen in the children who were studying music intensively (20 or more hours a week). These students were significantly better at tasks involving geometric representation and classic Euclidean properties such as angles and distance—tasks recognized as among the three core systems that support learning mathematics and science.

“We found a clear benefit for intensive music training, compared to theater or writing,” Spelke said. On map-reading tests, she added, children with music training performed better than children with training in other art forms. The observed connection between geometric reasoning and music “raises many more questions than it answers,” she noted, including why there is a link and how the brain might be involved. Spelke’s own hunch is that music may “tap very fundamental brain systems for spatial representation,” an idea supported by recent studies that suggest melodies and sequences of tones activate the same brain areas involved in the representation of space.

Music and Reading

Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University, led by psychologist Brian Wandell, found that children’s level of musical training was closely correlated with improvements in reading fluency. Wandell investigated the effects of various arts training, including the visual arts, music, dance and drama/theater, on reading and phonological skills (the ability to manipulate the basic sounds of speech). He has tracked 49 children ages 7 to 12 who are enrolled in a larger, federally funded study examining changes in brain structure associated with the development of these skills.

The effect on reading fluency was seen only with musical training, Wandell said. The more musical training a child had, the greater were the improvements in reading. The research also revealed preliminary evidence of a correlation between early exposure to the visual arts and improvement in math calculation, a finding Wandell called “surprising.” He is exploring this result further via a new set of experimental studies.

To try to understand the underlying brain mechanisms for these links, Wandell’s team used a brain-imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). This technique measures properties of white matter, the tracts of axons linking various brain regions.

The studies revealed “a remarkable connection between the properties of white matter fibers and phonological awareness,” Wandell said. Phonological awareness is directly related to reading ability. His group is now planning interventional studies to determine if arts training induces this change in brain structure or if the change is merely a correlation and is caused by other factors.

Correlations with Memory; Dancers Learn by Observing

Intensive music training was also strongly correlated with the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory, according to studies by University of Michigan cognitive psychologist John Jonides. He found that people trained in music apply strategies of rehearsal to maintain and retrieve memory more effectively.

Similarly, he found that training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through developing strategies for extracting the general idea from verbal memory. Moreover, this skill is transferable to other verbal cognitive skills.

Other research suggests that learning via effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice. Neurologist Scott Grafton at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied observational learning in dance. 

He found that performance achievements were similar through physical and observational learning, and that both types of learning involve common processes in the brain. Their studies suggest that effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills as well.

Eyeing Education Policy

Questions about whether arts training directly affects the brain and, if so, whether arts study transfers to other cognitive abilities have taken on new urgency as budget-strapped school districts and federal funding agencies consider cutting arts programs. The consortium’s findings have important implications for education policy, said the NEA’s Gioia.

“In the U.S. today we have created a bogus opposition between arts learning and other kinds of learning,” Gioia said, noting that virtually every week he learns of another school district that has canceled arts programs to focus on other areas of study. “This strikes me as a recipe for disaster. There is an enormous amount of research still to be done, but I think we know enough today to say that education policy and budget makers are using a false model.”

“The purpose of education is to realize the full potential of each child,” he said.  “To do that, children need exposure to a broad range of [arts training], not just traditional hard academic subjects.”

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