Column: Findings Should Help Scientists and Educators Join Forces

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

May 18, 2009

As a neurologist I have watched the expansion of my title’s prefix. First came the surgeons: neurosurgeons. Then we saw an overlap with psychiatry: neuropsychiatry. Then, along came a whole field: neuroscience. Now the flood gates have really opened: neuroethics, neuroeconomics and, most recently, neuroeducation.

This last area, has been a particular interest of the Dana Foundation— particularly its chairman, William Safire—for several years. In 2004, with Dana support and the guidance of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, a consortium of cognitive neuroscientists addressed the question of whether exposure to the arts—music, dance, and drama (visual arts were not included in this first series of studies)—could cause changes in the brain and also enhance other aspects of cognition.

For example, does exposure to music at an early age change structures in the brain and even enhance a child’s performance in other areas, such as math? The results of these first studies, published last year, are available here.

The next step was a meeting May 5-6 at Johns Hopkins University that brought together leaders in the cognitive neurosciences and in education to discuss how to bring these two somewhat disparate fields together. First, the neuroscientists brought the audience up to date on the latest research. Then, education leaders discussed how this information might be of help to them. Finally, the 200-plus participants split into small groups and collaborated on finding specific areas where scientific questions might inform real-world school curricula.

As one of the conference planners, I was skeptical of whether this approach would lead to useable suggestions, but it turned out to be highly effective. We are still analyzing the results of these small-group meetings; they will be the subject of a future column.

The latest research

In the neuroscience area, researchers have found some interesting extensions of their previous findings. Two are of particular interest.

Michael Posner and his colleagues at the University of Oregon have extended their findings on individual diversity in response to the arts. As any teacher could have predicted, some kids respond to music; others don’t.

My oldest son is an artist. As a small child, exposure to colors and forms got his attention, but music turned him off completely.

Posner has found a genetic basis to this individuality. A particular genetic makeup may correlate with being a music responder. With a different makeup, music may have little effect. One can imagine a future in which small children will be screened, both behaviorally and genetically. Those responsive to music could be taught one way, a group responsive to the visual arts could be taught a different way, and so on.

Does exposure to the music change the brain? Established musicians show functional and structural differences in their brains compared with nonmusicians. But these differences may have been present at birth.

Ellen Winner and Gottfried Schlaug collaborated on an extremely interesting study in which they recruited two groups of young children, one of which was about to begin receiving music instruction. At the start of the study, the cognitive performance and brain imaging of the two groups matched—the brains of the kids who were about to study music did not differ. The researchers then followed both groups for four years. Fifteen months into the study, the music group showed changes in their brains— the same types of changes that one finds in established musicians. So does exposure to music change the brain? The answer is yes.

Does this exposure influence learning in other areas? Psychologists use terms such as “near transfer” and “far transfer” to describe different kinds of influence in the brain. “Near transfer” applies to skills that are closely related to music learning, such as finger dexterity. “Far transfer” involves skills such as reading or arithmetic. In Winner and Schlaug’s study, music affected near transfer areas. Their findings are less certain concerning far transfer.

Other studies, particularly those of Elizabeth Spelke (another conference participant), have suggested that music training does have a far effect, particularly in the spatial aspects of math. The results of Winner and Schlaug’s full study after 48 months are eagerly awaited.

A growing field

The field of neuroeducation is in its infancy. In the past, many in neuroscience stayed away—the studies didn’t seem feasible. They are still hard to perform, but they can be done.

In addition, educators have their own way of doing things, often responding to pressures to improve math and reading while leaving little time for other activities. However, varied educational settings such as those found in many charter schools allow for opportunities to apply new ideas in an experimental way. As Spelke, one of the most innovative investigators in this area, pointed out, what’s needed is a new type of transition person who can bridge the education and cognitive neuroscience fields.