Cognitive decline as we age is all over the news lately. “Brain fitness” products are available for cell phones, Game Boys, and Xboxes, all designed to prevent the natural decline in cognitive ability as we age. There’s even a significant body of work suggesting that this sort of product really can work.
But some of the brain games can be dull, repetitive work: memory tasks, number games, and optical illusions, while endlessly fascinating to cognitive scientists, might be less appealing to the general population.
Researchers Helga and Tony Noice believe that training in the theater arts has similar cognitive benefits, with the added benefit of actually being quite enjoyable to its participants. Together with Graham Staines, in 2004 they developed a controlled study to test their idea. They recruited 124 older adults, age 60 to 86, to participate in one of three study groups, by posting notices in senior centers in DuPage County, Illinois, offering a chance to participate in “arts training”:
Ah, but which art? Will you be learning about painting landscapes, playing the oboe, reciting Shakespeare, or writing verse? Only those who sign up will find out.
After everyone agreed they could attend all nine 90-minute sessions over the course of a month, one group was assigned to participate in a theater workshop, one group studied visual art, and one group received no training at all. Each group took a variety of cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the month. Everyone was paid $50 after completing the study. Here are the results:
The theater group improved significantly more compared to the control group in each of the measures (there was much less variance in the psychological well-being scores than in the other tests, so those small gains are significant). For problem solving and well-being, the theater group also improved significantly more than the visual arts group. The theater group also had the lowest drop-out rate of any group: All theater participants attended all 9 sessions, while 8 of the 44 visual arts students dropped out, despite the fact that all participants said they enjoyed the sessions.
Noice et al. continued to study the theater students for four months after the study, and found their performance on all tests was maintained for the entire post-study period.
The team argues that their results demonstrate that theater training — even over a relatively short time period — can help prevent cognitive decline associated with aging. They even speculate on some of the reasons why it is effective: Theater, they claim, requires sustained attention to the task in a way that other activities do not. Actors must stay in character for the duration of a scene, unlike studying visual art, where viewers might “rest” in between viewing different images. Also, the participants consistently remarked that theater was “new” to them, and novelty appears to be a key component of brain fitness.
The team says it would like to try other types of training in the future to see if they can find similar effects. We’ve reported on a study conducted that same year which showed IQ gains in children who studied music compared to kids who studied drama or nothing at all. This suggests that musical theater might beat music or theater alone as a brain fitness product!
Noice, H., Noice, T., & Staines, G. (2004). A short-term intervention to enhance cognitive and affective functioning in older adults. Journal of Aging and Health, 16(4), 562-585.