Are smart people just naturally attracted to study art or perform music, dance, or drama? Or does early education in the arts actually cause changes in the brain that develop important components of cognition? Recent findings show that there may be some significant causal relationships between arts training and the brain's ability to learn.
The Dana Foundation, an organization with interests in neuroscience, immunology, and arts education, just released a three-year study that found that early training in the arts is possibly good for your brain. Neuroscientists and psychologists at several universities have now enhanced understanding of just how the arts might improve thinking, memory, and language skills. Music education is linked with the ability to control both short-term and long-term memory, geometric representation, and development of reading skills. Dance training improves thinking through mimicry and acting classes seem to expand language. Visual arts lessons outside the classroom during childhood are linked to improved math calculations; in retrospect, I wish I had more art lessons before I took on that advanced math class in high school.
It's not a new idea that the arts can make us smarter. The notion caught fire in the 1990s when researchers showed that college students did better on certain math tests after listening to a little bit of Mozart. And while the current report from the Dana Foundation did not provide definitive theories as to how arts make us smarter, what it does do is end the popular notion that people are either right- or left-brain learners. Apparently artists and scientists are not that fundamentally different and perhaps there is even an underlying connection between the cognitive processes that give rise to both arts and sciences.
As someone who is passionate about how arts change lives, I hope this research expands and continues to generate new data about the effects of arts education throughout the lifespan. The preliminary conclusions of the Dana report are a milestone in the journey to illuminate the impact of the arts on the brain and learning. If anything, this should be a call to psychologists, parents, educators, and public policymakers that art matters.
©2008 Cathy Malchiodi