Annual Report 2008 Special Focus Learning, Arts, and the Brain


April, 2009

Good teachers are always looking for better ways to get important information across to their students. The relatively new field of neuroeducation aims to apply the discoveries of neuroscientists to practical effect in the classroom and elsewhere. The Dana Foundation supports this effort through grants to researchers and sponsorship of seminars and workshops that provide solid information and tools to classroom teachers.

Finding Links between Arts Education and Cognitive Development

Are smart people drawn to the arts, or does arts training make people smarter—or both? In 2004, the Dana Foundation awarded more than $1.85 million in three-year grants to create a consortium to rigorously study the question of whether early training in the performing arts—dance, drama, and music—has a positive impact on cognition through detectable changes in brain processes.

The consortium involved nine investigators at seven major universities: the University of Oregon; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Stanford University; Harvard University; the University of Michigan; and Dartmouth College. Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D., widely known as the father of cognitive neuroscience, was the project’s organizer and leader.

The consortium completed its research in 2007 and reported the results in March 2008. Children motivated by the arts do develop attention skills and strategies for memory retrieval that apply to other subject areas. Using brain imaging studies and behavioral assessment, participating researchers identified eight key points relevant to the interests of parents, students, educators, neuroscientists, and policy makers. The report is available in print and online in HTML and in PDF; our Gray Matters series also includes podcast interviews with participating researchers Dr. Gazzaniga; Michael Posner, Ph.D.; and Elizabeth Spelke, Ph.D.

Much of this research was of a preliminary nature; it yielded several tight correlations but no definitive causal relationships. Although “there is still a lot of work to be done,” according to Dr. Gazzaniga, the consortium’s research so far has clarified the way forward. Said Dr. Gazzaniga, “We now have further reasons to believe that training in the arts has benefits for more general cognitive mechanisms.

 “A life-affirming dimension is opening up in neuroscience,” continued Dr. Gazzaniga, “to discover how the performance and appreciation of the arts enlarge cognitive capacities. [It] will be a long step forward in learning how better to learn and more enjoyably and productively to live. The consortium’s new findings and conceptual advances have clarified what now needs to be done.”

For example, one of the consortium researchers, Dr. Spelke of Harvard University, found that intensive music training is associated with improved performance in the core mathematical system for representing abstract geometry. But, she wrote in her report, “while this association was found for participants who received intensive music training, our sample size might have been too small to detect more subtle improvements that may occur from less intensive music training. That possibility needs to be explored in future studies.”

In 2008, Dana gave its support to that next step: studying whether improved geometric reasoning correlates to short-term music training. Dr. Spelke and her colleagues will study groups of 5-, 10-, 15-, and 20-year-olds. Each group will be divided into those receiving short-term exposure to music, those receiving short-term exposure to a non-music art form, and those with no arts training. If a correlation is found, Dr. Spelke will then use imaging to study topics such as whether tone is represented as space in the brain.

The consortium’s findings have important implications for education policy, said Dana Gioia, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, at an event announcing the results at the Dana Center.

“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,” said Gioia. “To do that, children need exposure to a broad range of [arts training], not just traditional ‘hard’ academic subjects.”

Applying Solid Research to the Classroom

Advances in several areas have jump-started the area of neuroeducation. The young field of cognitive neuroscience, which investigates how people learn, remember, and manipulate information, has matured to the point that it can offer solid clues to how our minds work. Researchers in the social sciences have described links between increased creativity and increased productivity, which underscores an appealing goal for business and other leaders who want workers trained to meet 21st-century needs. And other researchers have developed a battery of more accurate tools to measure cognition, emotion, and learning and to assess methods. These gradual steps have generated strong interest among educators, parents, and scientists in discovering what else we can learn about learning and how we can apply it to teaching—now.

As schools of education and other teacher-training groups puzzle out how to develop and incorporate new brain-based teaching methods, they can look to a group that already is practicing some of them: arts educators. How they are trained to use the arts as a teaching tool embodies many of neuroscience’s emerging concepts about optimal conditions for learning. When vetted by researchers, many current arts integration curricula could be incorporated into training for all teachers.

This arts integration model is just one technique for learning; there are many others. But if arts-based methods continue to prove to sharpen concentration, focus, and attention, they will become a necessary tool for success in the 21st century.

In 2008, Dana joined with the Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education to plan a summit called "Learning, Arts, and the Brain” in May 2009. At the summit, scientists and educators will present research on arts and cognition and its implications for learning and teaching. We have invited some of the university and teachers’ college leaders who attended our 2007 Transforming Arts Teaching conference to the 2009 summit. These leaders already are deeply committed to using the arts as teaching tools and are poised to be the first to connect that work to the practices of neuroeducation.

We hope that these groups will collaborate at the summit to share information as well as to point out new directions for research, reinforcing a cycle of continuing advances in our knowledge and practice in this field.

The Dana Alliance continues to support Learning & the Brain, three-day conferences for educators, school administrators, clinicians, and parents interested in how the latest research on how people learn and how the brain develops during childhood can be applied to the classroom and to other forms of teaching. In 2008, conference topics included focusing the mind, using emotions research to enhance learning and achievement, and rewiring the brain to improve learning. In 2009, topics include using social research to enhance cognition and achievement and, paired with the Johns Hopkins seminar, using research on creativity and the arts to enhance learning. [See also the section Reaching Out to All.]

The Arts and Autism 

Diagnoses of the brain development disease autism have risen so sharply in the past decade that some scientists refer to it as an epidemic. One in 150 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which also reports the rate of diagnosis is rising 10–17 percent annually. Looking for ways to help these children, we have partnered with advocates for science and education.

In 2005, Bob and Susan Wright founded the advocacy group Autism Speaks, and hit the ground running on fund-raising and public outreach. To help launch its grantmaking program, Dana’s staff and consultant-scientists organized the new group’s first call for proposals in early 2006, setting up the application process, obtaining scientific review, and establishing how grants would be approved and distributed. Of the initial 57 applications, a dozen were chosen for funding.

Later in 2006, Autism Speaks merged with the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR), then with Cure Autism Now (CAN), creating the world's largest autism advocacy organization. Our co-operation continued: In 2007, we co-funded a 3-year imaging grant with Autism Speaks to researcher Song-Hai Shi of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to investigate whether neuronal defects in the cerebral cortex were linked to autism.

Starting in 2007, we also have targeted children with the disorder where they spend their days: in schools. Through our Arts Education grant program, we are helping to establish teaching artist training programs in the New York area to equip artists who teach in public schools with the tools and knowledge to work with students on the autism spectrum. The Dana-supported program through Arts Horizons in Englewood, N.J., starting in 2007, involved nine artists at three schools. The six teaching artists in training took classes and performed a 10–12 week residency under the direction of a master teaching artist in one of three disciplines, music, dance, or theater. The program has been successful from the start, according to participants, educator-evaluators, and the children. Now in its second school year, the project is attracting outside funding, helping it to grow quickly.

In 2008, Dana funding allowed the Center for Arts Education in New York to start similarly training artists teaching in Staten Island public schools. Ten teaching artists participated in the pilot program, which included workshops on the range of autism-like disorders, observing children in classes, acting out lesson plans and scenarios, and discussing the results. The Center’s second “year” starts March 2009, with double the number of participants and more and longer training sessions—responding to feedback from the first-year group.

Both groups are documenting their training, from science to pedagogy, in print and video, aiming to create a resource for other groups to conduct similar training.

Worldwide Chats on Music and the Brain

Nearly 900 brain scientists and their guests stuffed a giant meeting room at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies annual meeting in Geneva in July to participate in two “sonic experiments,” courtesy of the European Dana Alliance and some talented musicians.

In the first, mezzo-soprano Solenn’ Lavanant and pianist and professor of opera Gary Magby were the (scientific) instruments; neuroscientist Prof. Pierre Magistretti, psychiatrist Prof. François Ansermet, and professor of opera Ioanna Bentoiu were the researchers; and the audience were the subjects. Lavanant performed each of three arias twice, trying to express different emotions each time. After each pair, Prof. Magistretti invited listeners to describe what they heard. They had a lot to say.

In the second experiment, composers Orazio Sciortino and Richard Rentsch treated us to two classically inspired improvisations to show “the use of synchrony in the process of creativity,” said Prof. Magistretti. Or, as Rentsch put it, “Notes are words, and when we put them together we speak with each other.”

The audience and the experimenters were so taken with the performances that they coaxed the players to carry on far longer than the allotted time. And the experiment continues online: a Webcast, “Music and the Brain: Perception to Emotion,” is available.

For Tune In, a three-year project in London exploring the subject of music and emotion, the European Dana Alliance is putting composers and musicians in touch with neuroscientists. Organized by the Central School of St. Martin’s College of Art, the University of London, and Wellcome Trust, the project will include performances, lectures, seminars, and workshops.

The first daylong event, which explored improvisation, creativity, and intuition, was held at the Wellcome Trust on November 8, 2008. European Dana Alliance members Professors Mark Lythgoe and Chris Kennard contributed.

During the British Association Festival of Science in September 2008, Dana sponsored an evening forum called Brains, Drugs, and Rock and Roll at the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played in their early days. During the session, Professor Martin Conway of the University of Leeds presented early results of online brain research entitled “The Magical Memory Tour.” The site asked people to share their strongest memories of the Beatles, in an effort to discover how the global musical phenomenon that was the Beatles shaped people’s personal life stories.

And a discussion called “How Music Shapes the Brain” drew a capacity crowd to the Dana Centre in London in February 2008. Joining speaker Alan Watson from Cardiff University and Chair Quentin Cooper of BBC’s The Material World, two musicians from the New London Orchestra added live examples to explanations of perfect pitch and other musical mysteries.

Views from many angles: The connection between baby talk and music. Insights into how great jazz players improvise. Music strong enough that it might drive people to kill.

In Washington, D.C., the Dana Foundation is sponsoring a series on new research associated with music and the brain, presented by the Library of Congress and the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center. From October 2008 through March 2009, six public lectures will be given on topics such as listening and the brain, the cognitive neuroscience of music, and the mind of the artist. Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., a Dana Alliance executive committee member and author of The Unquiet Mind and Exuberance: The Passion for Life, will lead a symposium on depression and creativity on February 3, 2009. All the lectures are available via podcast; some also are available in video.

The lectures in fall 2008 demonstrated just how far researchers have come in understanding the physical processes behind mental abilities—and how far is left to go. Ellen Dissanayake, a music professor at the University of Washington, started the series on October 17 with a discussion of the similarities between “motherese”—that characteristic singsong way of talking to infants—and music. Studies show that these parallels hold across many different cultures and aid in the child’s brain development, language learning, socialization and bonding with the mother. Motherese also appears to make people more receptive to both creating and listening to music, as individuals and as societies, Dissanayake suggested.

Jessica Krash of George Washington University and Norman Middleton of the Library of Congress’s Music Division outlined some of the most extreme emotional reactions in their “Dangerous Music” lecture on October 30. Using clips from the blues of Robert Johnson and the heavy metal of Black Sabbath for emphasis, the pair pointed out how music made dissonant through the tritone—or “Devil’s interval”—has been linked to evil throughout history. Even in modern times, such songs have been alleged to drive people to murder (Body Count’s “Cop Killer”) or suicide (Judas Priest’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”).

Jazz keyboard fMRI_feature
A jazz player improvises music using a special, metal-free keyboard while lying in a brain scanner. The study also required a jury-rigged set of mirrors, so musicians could see what they were playing without moving their heads and messing up the results. (Image courtesy of Charles Limb)
For neuroscientists, perhaps the most interesting and provocative presentation so far was Charles Limb’s “This is Your Brain Jammin’! Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Improvisation” on October 24. Limb, a musician and surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, outlined brain changes detected during fMRI research on six jazz experts using a special keyboard. Much of the prefrontal cortex—including regions associated with self-monitoring—was deactivated, and limbic areas tied to emotion also showed a “surprising” lack of activity, Limb said. In contrast, activity increased in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with autobiographical thought; and several sensorimotor areas.

Aniruddh D. Patel, Ph.D., at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego and author of Music, Language and the Brain, explained some of the “hidden” connections between language and instrumental music being uncovered by empirical scientific studies in his lecture “The Music of Language and the Language of Music” on November 7. Neuroscientists have come a long way in tying specific mental tasks to parts of the brain and even in mapping its connections, but figuring out how these incorporate into complex conscious actions such as creativity and improvisation is still far, far away. For now, the findings are just an incremental step in understanding how the brain might work—and offer no chance of taking the magic away from music. (Patel also is quoted in our Cerebrum piece, “How Music Can Reach the Silenced Brain”)

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