Arts Training and Brain Development

In 2004, the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium brought together cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities across the United States to grapple with the question of why arts training has been associated with higher academic performance. Is it simply that smart people are drawn to “do” art — to study and perform music, dance, drama — or does early arts training cause changes in the brain that enhance other important aspects of cognition?
The consortium can now report findings that allow for a deeper understanding of how to define and evaluate the possible causal relationships between arts training and the ability of the brain to learn in other cognitive domains.
The research includes new data about the effects of arts training that should stimulate future investigation. The preliminary conclusions we have reached may soon lead to trustworthy assumptions about the impact of arts study on the brain; this should be helpful to parents, students, educators, neuroscientists, and policymakers in making personal, institutional, and policy decisions.

What We Learned

Specifics of each participating scientist’s research program can be downloaded here. What follows is a summary of what the group has learned:

  1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.
  2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.
  3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.
  4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.
  5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.
  6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.
  7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.
  8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also in the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

The foregoing advances our knowledge about the relationship between arts and cognition. These advances constitute a first round of a neuroscientific attack on the question of whether arts training changes the brain to enhance general cognitive capacities. The question is of such wide interest that, as with some organic diseases, insupportable answers gain fast traction and then ultimately boomerang.

Correlation versus Causal Explanation — the Scientists’ Dilemma

This is the particular difficulty of correlations; the weakness and even spuriousness of some correlational studies led to the creation of the consortium. Correlation accompanies, parallels, complements, or reciprocates, and is interesting to observe, but only an understanding of mechanisms drives action and change.
Although scientists must constantly warn of the need to distinguish between correlation and causation, it is important to realize that neuroscience often begins with correlations—usually, the discovery that a certain kind of brain activity works in concert with a certain kind of behavior. But in deciding what research will be most productive, it matters whether these correlations are loose or tight. Many of the studies cited here tighten up correlations that have been noted before, thereby laying the groundwork for unearthing true causal explanations through understanding biological and brain mechanisms that may underlie those relationships.
Moreover, just as correlations may be tight or loose, causation may also be strong or weak. Theoretically, we could claim a broad causation, akin to “smoking causes cancer,” with randomized prospective trials showing that children taking arts training can improve certain cognitive scores. Yet, even such a clear-cut result would be weak causation, because we would not have found even one brain mechanism of learning that could suggest progress in understanding such mechanisms to guide optimal arts exposure. Nor would we have found by what mechanisms the brain generalizes that learning, nor anything about developmental periods where the brain is particularly sensitive to growth from specific types of experience.
A vast area of valuable research lies between tight correlation and hard-evidence-based causal explanations. Theory-driven questions using cognitive neuroscience methods can go beyond efficacy-of-outcome measures by framing experiments that demonstrate how changes in the brain, as a result of arts training, enrich a person’s life, and how this experience is transferred to domains that enhance academic learning. Such mid-ground studies would significantly advance our knowledge even though they are not at the level of cellular or molecular explanations.
The consortium work on dance is a good example. Our research indicates that dance training can enable students to become highly successful observers. We found that learning to dance by watching alone can be highly successful and that the success is sustained at the neural level by a strong overlap between brain areas that are used for observing actions and also for making actual movements. These shared neural substrates are critical for organizing complex actions into sequential structure. In the future we can test whether this skill in effective observation will transfer to other academic domains.

The Consortium Has Laid the Foundation

Nailing down causal mechanisms in the complex circuitry of the brain is a tall order. The arts and cognition studies by the Dana consortium during the past three years lay a foundation for understanding the mechanisms needed for action; we believe they offer the validity essential for the future studies that will build on them.
A life-affirming dimension is opening up in neuroscience; to discover how the performance and appreciation of the arts enlarge cognitive capacities will be a long step forward in learning how better to learn and more enjoyably and productively to live. We offer several suggestions for extensions of the research reported herein:

  1. Previous work has established that different neural networks are involved in various forms of the arts such as music, visual arts, drama, and dance. Future studies should examine the degree to which these networks are separate and overlap.
  2. We also require evidence of how high motivation to pursue an art form will lead to more rapid changes in that network and must find out to what degree such changes may influence other forms of cognition.
  3. The links between music and visual arts training and specific aspects of mathematics such as geometry need to be more profoundly explored with advanced imaging methods.
  4. The link between intrinsic motivation for a specific art (e.g., music and visual arts) and sustained attention to tasks involving that art needs to be followed up with increased behavioral evidence and imaging methods that can demonstrate that changes in specific pathways are greater for higher levels of motivation.
  5. The search for individual indicators of interest in and influence by training in the arts should continue to be examined by a combination of appropriate questionnaire research, use of candidate genes already identified, and whole genome scans.
  6. Further research also should pose these questions:
  • To what degree is the link between music training, reading and sequence learning causative? If it is causative, does it involve shaping of connectivity between areas of the brain network involved?
  • Is the link between music and drama training and memory methods a causative one? If so, can we use brain imaging to determine the mechanism?
  • What is the role of careful observation and imitation in the performing arts? Can we prepare our motor system for complex dance movements by simply observing or imagining desired movements? Does the discipline and cognitive skill to achieve this goal transfer?

The consortium’s accomplishments to date have included bringing together some of the leading cognitive neuroscientists in the world to sort out correlative observations on the arts and cognition, and to begin the analysis of whether these relationships are causal. The consortium’s new findings and conceptual advances have clarified what now needs to be done. The specific suggestions noted above grow out of the project’s efforts &mdash:and surely others are possible as well. These suggestions represent a further deepening of a newly accessible field of investigation. Fresh results as well as new ideas are presented herein on how to continue to research this topic.
In my judgment, this project has identified candidate genes involved in the predisposition to the arts and has also shown that cognitive improvements can be made to specific mental capacities such as geometric reasoning; that specific pathways in the brain can be identified and potentially changed during training; that sometimes it is not structural brain changes but rather changes in cognitive strategy that help solve a problem; and that early targeted music training may lead to better cognition through an as yet unknown neural mechanism. That is all rather remarkable and challenging.


Michael S. Gazzaniga. First published in Music Forum Vol 14 No 4, August 2008. Entered on Knowledge Base 3 February 2014.
Dr. Gazzaniga led the three-year, seven-university consortium that issued the report Learning, Arts, and the Brain, and the above article is its introductory chapter. The report and the complete interview can be read here.
The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropy with principal interests in brain science, immunology, and arts education. It has offices in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. The Dana Foundation has extended its longtime interest in education to support innovative professional development programs leading to improved teaching of the performing arts in public schools.
This paper and the accompanying excerpt from an interview are published with the kind permission of the Dana Foundation.

Excerpt from a Conversation with Michael S. Gazzaniga

By Carolyn Asbury, May 22, 2008
Tell us about the major correlations that consortium members found.
Let’s start with the potential role of attention as described in Dr. Michael Posner’s research at the University of Oregon. First, he has evidence that specific brain networks are involved in learning different art forms. He begins with the premise that some children are especially open to—interested in—one or more forms of art. By the way, he speculates that differences in children’s openness to an art may have a genetic component, and genetic studies have begun to yield some candidate genes.
If a child is open to a specific art form, and receives training in it, the child will develop strong motivation to sustain attention to learn it. With highly sustained attention, according to Posner’s research, the child essentially walls out competing things, and the child’s cognitive abilities are generally enhanced.
Interestingly, his colleague at Oregon, Dr. Helen Neville, found evidence that attention may be the common factor that accounted for improved cognitive test scores in children in three groups of special Head Start classes: those who received music training, those who received training in how to focus their attention, and those who received regular Head Start instruction but in a smaller class size. So, classroom exposure to various arts in children who are open to one or more art forms may prove to be an important way to strengthen their abilities to focus attention in general.
Was music training correlated with other cognitive abilities?
Absolutely. Intensive music training was strongly linked to children’s skills in geometric reasoning, according to Dr. Elizabeth Spelke’s research at Harvard. This mathematics skill, which is essential for architects, engineers, astronomers and others, is one of three basic systems that underlie ability in mathematics.
Additionally, a striking correlation was found between music training and reading acquisition. Dr. Brian Wandell of Stanford found that the amount of music training children had in the first year of his three-year study directly correlated with the amount of improvements in children’s reading fluency over those three years. He also found that the children with music training also demonstrated better phonological awareness, which is one of the central predictors of early literacy.
And here is where brain imaging has been really contributive to our understanding of this correlation. Using diffusion tensor imaging, he found that diffusion in the bundle of nerve axons that connect the brain’s left and right temporal lobes is correlated with all measures of reading ability, but especially phonological awareness.
Another correlation between music training and cognition, specifically memory, was made by Dr. John Jonides at the University of Michigan. His research demonstrated that people intensively trained in music apply rehearsal strategies—essentially cognitive strategies rather than brain changes—to maintain information in working immediate and long-term memory more effectively.

Michael Gazzaniga Ph.D. is director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind and its Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience. He serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *