Arts and Cognition Monograph: How Arts Training Influences Cognition

March, 2008

By Michael Posner, Ph.D., Mary K. Rothbart, Ph.D., Brad E. Sheese, Ph.D., and Jessica Kieras, Ph.D., University of Oregon


In our research, we studied how training in the arts can influence other cognitive processes through the underlying mechanism of attention. We also identified the neural network (system of connections between brain areas) from among the several involved in attention that is most likely to be influenced by arts training. Finally, we explored how individual differences in genes and temperament relate to the amount of improvement achieved, through attention training.

We developed a theory about how arts training might work in which we hypothesized that: 1) there are specific brain networks for different art forms; 2) there is a general factor of interest or openness to the arts; 3) children with high interest in the arts, and with training in those arts, develop high motivation; 4) motivation sustains attention; and 5) high sustained motivation, while engaging in conflict-related tasks, improves cognition.

The first two elements were tested through a questionnaire administered to adults. We found a statistically significant association between having an interest in a specific art form and producing that type of art. The questionnaire analyses also revealed that a general aesthetic interest, or openness to the arts, was correlated with an appreciation of all of the art forms except dance. In our study, dance was confused between the art form and the social activity.

We tested whether motivation sustains attention by randomly assigning children into a control group, which performed a speeded task, or to an experimental group, in which the children performed tasks under motivating conditions of either reward or knowledge of their results. We found that high levels of motivation led to strong improvements in task performance, particularly when motivation was sustained for longer periods of time. The findings support the idea that interest in the arts allows for sustained attention, providing an increased opportunity for the training to be effective.

We also studied training of an executive attentional network that is related to the self-regulation of cognition and emotion. We assessed whether engaging in tasks designed to teach children how to resolve conflict improves cognition. We randomly assigned children to a control or intervention group. The intervention consisted of five days of training on computerized exercises of conflict resolution, under highly motivating conditions.

Children receiving attention training in conflict resolution under motivating conditions, compared to controls, showed significantly greater improvement on intelligence test scores. This suggests that the effects of attention training generalized to a measure of cognitive processing that extended far beyond the training exercises. Brain imaging using EEG (electroencephalophy, which records the brain’s electrical activity) also showed that during executive attention tasks, trained children had patterns of activity similar to those found in adults, while untrained children (control group) did not.

Our genetics studies suggest that specific forms of several genes involved in the transmission of the neurotransmitter dopamine from one brain cell to another may be related to differences among children and among adults in how efficiently they resolve conflict. We are continuing these genetic studies.

In our work, we used specific training exercises designed to be engaging and motivating to improve attention. However, we believe that any training that truly engages the interest of the child and motivates the child can serve to help train attention. Our findings indicate that arts training could work through the training of attention to improve cognition for those with an interest and ability in the arts.


We have been investigating an executive attentional network of connections between brain areas that appears to be an important underlying foundation of cognitive improvements related to arts training. This executive attention network is related to the self-regulation of cognition and emotion (Posner and Rothbart, 2007a,b; Rothbart and Rueda, 2005; Rueda, Posner, and Rothbart, 2004). The network involves specific brain areas, including the midline and lateral frontal areas (Fan, McCandliss et al 2005a). We have shown that the efficiency of executive attention is related to a higher order factor in parental reports about their children called effortful control (Rothbart and Rueda, 2005). Thus executive attention plays an important role in the child’s everyday control of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that can be observed and reported by their parents.

... executive attention plays an important role in the child's everyday control of thoughts, feelings and behavior

The ability to study the executive attentional network is enhanced by progress in neuroimaging (Posner and Rothbart, 2007a) and in sequencing the human genome (Posner, Rothbart, and Sheese, 2007; Venter et al, 2002). These two scientific fields make it possible to consider high level cognitive skills in terms of experiential and genetic factors that shape the development of underlying brain networks (systems of connections between brain areas).

Our previous extensive studies on the processes of attention used by infants and children have established that this attentional brain network is related to self-regulation of cognition and emotion. It is involved in attending to high level skills, including making word associations. For instance, during the act of attending to one language while suppressing related responses in another language, the executive attentional network is the one most likely to be active.

In this research, we studied the network’s development in children ranging from two-and-one-half to seven years of age (Rueda et al., 2004). Additionally, we asked parents of the children enrolled in our study to fill out a self-report questionnaire. We examined children’s abilities to self-regulate cognition and emotion. The children were tested on a number of conflict tasks (Fan, Flombaum et al., 2003), which have been shown to activate the executive attentional network.

...this attentional brain network is related to self-regulation of cognition and emotion Individual differences among children in development of this network were related to parents’ reports of the degree to which their children were able to regulate their own behavior (Rothbart and Rueda, 2005) and to their ability to delay rewards. Additionally, through imaging studies, it was found that individual differences in the development of the executive attentional network are related to differences in the activation of brain areas that are involved in high-level skills (Posner and Rothbart, 2007b).

Through genetic studies, it has been shown that specific forms of several dopamine and serotonin genes were related to differences in the efficiency with which conflict is resolved. Two of these genes have also been related to activation of the part of the executive attention network located in the brain’s cingulate gyrus (Fan, Fossella et al., 2005).

The theory is ... that each individual art form involves separate brain networksBased on these findings, we had adapted a set of exercises, developed from animal studies, to train developmentally healthy four and six year olds to focus their attention. We randomized the children into two groups: an attention training group (experimental group) and a “control” group who interacted with videos not designed to improve attention.

Children in the experimental group, compared to those in the control group, showed greater improvement in IQ measures, showing generalization beyond the direct measures of attention (Rueda, Rothbart, Saccamanno, and Posner, 2005; 2007).

Our Hypotheses

We considered it as important to have an explanation of how the arts influence cognition, as it is to have evidence that arts training influences cognition. We hypothesized, therefore, that the brain network involved in executive attention and effortful control can be strengthened by specific learning. Moreover, we hypothesized that the enthusiasm that many young people have for music, art, and performance could provide a context for paying close attention. This motivation could, in turn, lead to improvement in the attention network, which would then generalize to a range of cognitive skills.

Our training study supported this proposed theory about the mechanisms by which training in the arts can have a persistent effect on a wide variety of cognitive processes.

The theory is based on the idea that each individual art form involves separate brain networks. In Figure 1, we summarize some of the specific brain areas involved in different art forms.

Arts and Cognition monograph - Posner Figure 1

Figure 1. (Courtesy of Posner Lab and Vonda Evans)

The results from the parents’ questionnaire suggest that there is some variation in a child’s degree of interest in different art forms. In addition, interest in each of the arts indicated in Figure 1 is correlated with a General Arts Interest factor.

This General Arts Interest factor was itself correlated with a temperamental characteristic called “Orienting Sensitivity” (Rothbart, Ahadi, and Evans, 2000; Evans and Rothbart, 2008). Orienting Sensitivity is, in turn, strongly related to the Big Five-personality factor of openness. Therefore, we related the degree of general arts interest with the personality factor of openness.

Interest in aesthetics, or openness to an interest in the arts, has been found in studies of adults to be related to specific forms of genes that direct the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Some of these same genes have also been related to the efficiency of executive attention, which in turn is modulated by dopamine.

Elements of the Arts Theory

Our theory of how interest and training in the arts leads to improved general cognition generally, involves five elements. They are listed below, and then discussed.

  1. There are specific brain networks for different art forms.
  2. There is a general factor of interest in the arts.
  3. When this general factor of interest in the arts is high, training in an appropriate specific art form produces high interest or motivation.
  4. This interest or motivation sustains attention.
  5. High sustained attention in conflict-related tasks, of the type used in our attention–training studies improves cognition.

Study Design and Results

To explore the first three elements of our theory, we constructed a questionnaire based on the Evans and Rothbart’s Adult Temperament Scale (ATQ) (Evans and Rothbart, 2007). We also added a number of aesthetics questions listed below that were developed by Victor, Rothbart, and Baker (in preparation). The questionnaire was administered to samples of University of Oregon undergraduates and to a sample of adult residents of the community of Bend, Oregon.

Element 1: Appreciation of Art Relates to Pleasure in Producing that Art

We tested the hypothesis that an appreciation of a specific type of art was related to pleasure in producing that type of art. We correlated responses to questionnaire items that assessed interest in perceiving and producing specific art forms.

Interest in looking at art was correlated with interest in painting/drawing r=.48. The correlation, termed “r” reflects the relation between observing arts and producing the art. This correlation was significant statistically, meaning that it was unlikely to be present by chance alone. Similarly, interest in making ceramics or sculptures was statistically correlated with pleasure in producing that type of art (r = .42, p <.01). Interest in listening to music was correlated with interest in playing a musical instrument (r =.31, p <.01). Interest in watching plays was correlated with interest in photography or filmmaking (r =.33, p <.01) and interest in writing (r = .28, p <.01).

Element 2: Appreciation of an Art Form Relates to General Aesthetic Interest

We tested the hypothesis that appreciation of specific types of art is related to general aesthetic interest. We computed a score for “general aesthetic interest” by calculating the average (“mean”) of non-specific artistic items (“I am creative,” “I am artistic,” “I show a lot of imagination”). We looked for correlations between this average score and each item that assessed interest in a specific art form.

All of the specific art form items were significantly (p < .05) correlated with the score on general aesthetic interest, except “I like dancing.” The median correlation was r=.35 for all of the items except dancing.

These results also showed that the general aesthetics factor (Table 1, Row 1) was highly correlated with the temperament factor of orienting sensitivity (openness).


Table 1: Structure of the Aesthetics Questionnaire
General Aesthetic ActivityPerception ItemsProduction Items 
I show a lot of imagination.I like to look at art.

I like to paint or draw.

I like making sulptures or ceramics

I am creative.I enjoy listening to music.I would enjoy playing a musical instrument.
I am artistic.I like watching plays.

I enjoy photography or filmmaking.

I like to write.

  I like dancing.










Element 3: High Interest is Linked to High Motivation

This element links training in appropriate arts with motivation. The link between arts training and motivation, though plausible, remains speculative, and needs to be tested through experimental research. We postulate that children who have a high level of orienting sensitivity (openness) and at least normal interest in a particular art will have high motivation to receive training in that art.

Element 4: Motivation Sustains Attention

Our research has provided evidence that motivation sustains attention. We found, in children aged four-and-one-half and seven years old, that high levels of motivation, as induced by reward and feedback, led to strong improvements in sustained attention (Kieras, 2006). When feedback and reward were used to heighten motivation, children showed improved levels of alerting during a task. We found that children performing the task under motivating conditions sustained their attention over longer periods of time compared to children who performed the task in the absence of such motivating conditions.

We propose, based on these findings, that arts training for those with a high level of interest would allow for sustained attention, thereby increasing the opportunity for training to be effective.

Element 5: High Sustained Attention on Conflict Tasks Improves Cognition

We have published evidence that one form of attention training does, in fact, improve the underlying network that is involved in executive attention for effortful control of cognition and emotion (Rueda, et al, 2005). To examine the role of experience on the executive attentional network, we developed and tested a five-day training intervention that uses computerized exercises. The exercises were designed to be interesting and motivating to young children in just the way that we assume arts training to be for children with the appropriate interests.

We tested the effect of this training intervention during the period of major development of executive attention, in children between the ages of four and seven (Rueda, Posner, Rothbart, and Davis-Stober, 2004). We hypothesized that children trained in attention related to effortful control of cognition and emotion would show improvement in conflict resolution by changes in the underlying executive attentional network; and we hypothesized that this effect would be generalized to other aspects of cognition.

To test this hypothesis, we used EEGs (electroencephalograms), electrodes that are placed on the scalp and record electrical activity of the brain. Our EEG data showed clear evidence that training improved the efficiency of the executive attentional network in resolving conflict.

... attention training altered the network involved in the resolution of conflict The technical explanation is that the “N2” component of the scalp-recorded ERP (event-related potential, which is an electrical response to a specific stimulus) has been shown to arise in the brain’s anterior “cingulate” region, and is related to the resolution of conflict (Rueda, et al, 2004; van Veen and Carter, 2002). We found N2 differences between congruent (matched) and incongruent trials of the Attentional Network Test in six year olds trained in attention. The differences in the attentional network seen in the trained six year olds resembled those found in adults.

In four year olds, training appeared to influence patterns of electrical activity measured by electrodes placed above the anterior part of the brain, which is related to emotional control areas of the brain’s anterior cingulate region (Bush, Luu and Posner, 2000). Taken together, the data on the four and six-year-old children suggest that attention training altered the network involved in the resolution of conflict, and that the alteration was more like the network efficiency seen in adults.

We also found a significantly greater improvement in intelligence test scores in the group of children who received attention training, compared to the control group of children. This finding suggests that the effects of attention training generalized to a measure of cognitive processing that extended far beyond the training exercises. We did not observe changes in the children’s temperament over the course of the training, but the inability to observe such changes was expected, since such a short time elapsed between assessment sessions.

Genes Involved in Attention

Our findings indicate that not all children need or benefit from attention training. This may be one reason why variability in children’s performance following attention training is so high. In some of our studies, for instance, children with the most initial difficulty in resolving conflict showed the greatest overall improvement in this task following attention training. Our research also suggests that genetic markers may exist that help explain differences seen in children’s abilities to selectively focus attention for effortful control of cognition and emotion.

We obtained genetic information on most of the six-year-old children who participated in our research. Children were divided into two groups according to which of two forms they carried of the gene called the dopamine transporter gene (“DAT1”). The dopamine transporter gene is responsible for conveying the neurotransmitter dopamine from one brain cell to another. This neurotransmitter has been shown to be involved in attention, arousal, and problem solving, along with other cognitive functions such as learning and memory.

Since we found that children differed in their ability to selectively focus attention in effortful control of cognition and emotion (“attentional ability”), and that this difference rested, in part, on which of the two forms of the dopamine transporter gene each had (Posner, Sheese and Rothbart, 2007), we decided to examine how this attentional network system develops from infancy and how genes may influence the network’s development. To accomplish this, we obtained genetic information on 70 children. We then measured attention and temperament from experimental studies and parental reports. We found evidence that executive attention is present in infancy, and that it can be measured in infants and young children by assessing their anticipatory looks.

We are beginning to explore the origin in infancy of the executive attention network, as measured in childhood. To do so, we are examining a larger cohort of children in a longitudinal study, in which we follow seven-month-old infants until they reach age four. During this time, we characterize the development of their executive attention network, and correlate children’s performance in selective attention and control at age four with characteristics of their network’s development.

A major interest, beyond healthy abilities in effortful control and selective attention, is to determine how these abilities are altered in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). We have approached this question through our genetic studies. We found that during the early years of life, individual differences in attention and effortful control are related to the CHRNA4 gene. In adults, this gene has been shown to be related to tasks that involve orienting. We also found that the presence of the seven-repeat form of the dopamine 4 receptor gene (DRD4), interacted with the quality of parenting skills to influence several related aspects of temperament. These aspects include level of activity (such as hyperactivity), sensation seeking, and impulsivity. These characteristics are frequently seen in children with ADHD.

Children with the seven-repeat form of the DRD4 gene show more moderate levels of activity and impulsivity when parenting is of high quality. Children who do not have the seven-repeat form of the DRD4 gene, in contrast, are relatively uninfluenced by parenting (Sheese, Voelker, Rothbart and Posner, 2007).

Genetic studies have shown that the seven-repeat form of the DRD4 gene is under positive selective pressure (it tends to be passed on—inherited—over other forms of the gene). We suggest, therefore, that the seven-repeat form of DRD4 gene is being genetically selected because it increases the influence of parenting on child behavior. This raises the possibility that positive selection of genetic variation, in general, is related to the degree to which a particular form of a gene makes behavior subject to cultural influences, including parenting (Posner, in press).

We believe that success in arts training rests in part on the temperament of the child being trained Although most of these genetic findings are not directly related to aesthetics, we found that the presence of the seven-repeat form of the DRD4 gene, in the parents of the children we studied, was related to parents’ self-reported lower levels of interest in specific arts, such as music, the visual arts, or theater. We do not know if this finding differs as a function of the exposure of these parents during their childhood. This is a possibility, however, given our findings about the relationship between the seven-repeat form of the DRD4 gene and the influence of parenting skills on children’s behavior.

No other genes showed a significant relationship to the composite measure of enjoyment of specific art forms. However, one dopamine gene (DBH) and one serotonin gene (TPH2), both of which have been shown to be related to executive attention, were also related to our more general “interest in aesthetics” as measured by questionnaire items.

Future Study Directions

We believe that success in arts training rests in part on the temperament of the child being trained. Temperament in turn is determined by genes in interaction with the environment. Since it is so important to study the role of genes and the interaction of genes and environment in influencing attention to the arts, we plan to conduct a full genome scan to determine the range of genetic variation that might influence aspects of executive attention, effortful control, and aesthetic preference. We have pooled data from our adult participants according to whether they scored high or low in aesthetics preference, and plan to determine which of the 30,000 genes in the human genome might differ between the two groups. We plan a similar investigation of possible genes involved in executive attention, effortful control, and positive and negative affect in our children.


Our three-year research has led to a general framework for viewing how arts training changes cognition. Our theory stresses that there are individual differences in interest and motivation toward the arts. Our theory suggests that arts training works through the training of attention to improve cognition for children with interests and abilities in the arts.

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References, Paper and Presentation
on the Dana supported research

Evans D.E. & Rothbart, M.K. (2007). An adult model of temperament. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 868-888

Evans, D.E., & Rothbart, M.K. (2008). Temperament sensitivity: Two constructs or one? Journal of Individual Differences, 44, 108-118

Kieras, J.E. (2006). Effects of motivation on children’s attention and performance. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon.

Kieras, J.E., Rothbart, M.K., & Posner M.I. (2006). Temperament and Aesthetics. Journal of Piaget Society.

Posner, M.I. (in press) Evolution and Development of Self Regulation. 77th Arthur Lecture New York: American Museum of Natural History

Posner, M.I. & Rothbart, M.K. (2005). Influencing brain networks: Implications for education. Trends in Cognitive Science, 9, 99-103.

Posner, M.I. & Rothbart, M.K. (2007a). Research on attentional networks as a model for the integration of psychological science. Annual Review of Psychology.

Posner, M.I. & Rothbart, M.K. (2007b). Educating the Human Brain. Washington DC: APA Books.

Posner, M.I., Rothbart, M.K,. & Sheese, B. (2007). Attention Genes. Developmental Science, 10, 24-29.

Posner, M.I., Sheese, B.E., Odludas, Y., & Tang, Y. (2006). Analyzing and shaping neural networks. Neural Networks, 19, 1422-1429.

Rothbart, M.K. (2007). Temperament, Development, and Personality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 207-212

Rothbart, M.K., & Rueda, M.R. (2005). The development of effortful control. In U. Mayr, E. Awh, & S. W. Keele (Eds.), Developing individuality in the human brain: A tribute to Michael I. Posner (167-188). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rothbart, M.K. & Sheese, B.E. (2007). Temperament and emotion regulation. In J.J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of Emotion Regulation. New York: Guilford (331-350).

Rothbart, M.K., Sheese, B.E., & Posner, M.I. (2007). Executive attention and effortful control: Linking temperament, brain networks and genes. Perspectives in Development, 1, 2-7.

Rueda, M.R., Rothbart, M.K., Saccamanno, L., & Posner, M.I. (2005). Training, maturation and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 14931-14936.

Rueda, M.R., Rothbart, M.K., Saccomanno, L., & Posner, M.I. (2007). Modifying brain networks underlying self regulation. In D. Romer & E.F. Walker (Eds), Adolescent Psychopathology and the Developing Brain. New York: Oxford, (401-419).

Sheese, B., Rothbart, M.K., White, L., Fraundorf, S., & Posner M.I. (2006). The origin of executive attention during infant development. American Psychological Association Symposium, New Orleans.

Sheese, B.E., Rothbart, M.K. Posner, M.I., White, L.K. & Fraundorf, S.H. (submitted). Executive attention and self-regulation in infancy. Infant Development and Behavior.

Sheese, B.E.,Voelker, P.M., Rothbart, M.K., & Posner, M.I. (2007). Parenting quality interacts with genetic variation in Dopamine Receptor DRD4 to influence temperament in early childhood. Development & Psychopathology.

Victor, J. & Rothbart M.K. & Baker, S. (in preparation). A general model of temperament and personality in childhood.

References: Other Papers Cited

Bush, G., Luu, P. & Posner, M.I. (2000). Cognitive and emotional influences in the anterior cingulate cortex. Trends in Cognitive Science, 4/6: 215-222.

Fan, J., Flombaum, J.I., McCandliss, B.D., Thomas, K.M. & Posner, M.I. (2003).Cognitive and brain consequences of conflict. Neuro Image, 18: 42-57.

Fan, J., Fossella, J.A., Summer T. Wu, Y. & Posner, M.I. (2003) Mapping the genetic variation of executive attention onto brain activity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100: 7406-11.

Fan, J., McCandliss, B.D., Fossella, J., Flombaum, J.I., & Posner, M.I. (2005) The activation of attentional networks Neuroimage, 26: 471-9

Parasuraman, R., Greenwood, P.M., Kumar, R., & Fossella, J. (2005). Beyond heritability – Neurotransmitter genes differentially modulate visuospatial attention and working memory. Psychological Science, 16, 200-207.

Rothbart, M.K., Ahadi, S.A., & Evans, D. E. (2000). Temperament and personality: Origins and outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 122-135.

Rothbart, M.K., Ahadi, S.A., Hershey, K., & Fisher, P. (2001). Investigations of temperament at three to seven years: The Children’s Behavior Questionnaire. Child Development, 72, 1394-1408.

Rueda, M.R., Posner, M.I., Rothbart, M.K. & Davis-Stober, C.P. (2004). Development of the time course for processing conflict: An event-related potentials study with 4 year olds and adults. BMC Neuroscience, 5, 39.

Swanson, J., Oosterlaan, J., Murias, M., Moyzis, R., Schuck, S., Mann, M., Feldman, P., Spence, M.A., Sergeant, J., Smith, M., Kennedy J. & Posner, M.I (2000). ADHD children with seven-repeat allele of the DRD4 gene have extreme behavior but normal performance on critical neuropsychological tests of attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 97, 4754-59.

Van Veen, V. & Carter, C.S. (2002). The timing of action-monitoring processes in the anterior cingulate cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 593-602.

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