The Frontal Cortex

Arts Education

Michael Posner and Brenda Patoine make a neuroscientific case for arts education. They argue that teaching kids to make art has lasting cognitive benefits:

If there were a surefire way to improve your brain, would you try it? Judging by the abundance of products, programs and pills that claim to offer “cognitive enhancement,” many people are lining up for just such quick brain fixes. Recent research offers a possibility with much better, science-based support: that focused training in any of the arts–such as music, dance or theater–strengthens the brain’s attention system, which in turn can improve cognition more generally.

We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art–if we practice frequently and are truly engaged–activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.

They even have some longitudinal evidence:

In 2004, E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga published results from a randomized, controlled study showing that the IQ scores of 72 children who were enrolled in a yearlong music training program increased significantly compared with 36 children who received no training and 36 children who took drama lessons. (The IQ scores of children taking drama lessons did not increase, but these children did improve more than the other groups on ratings of selected social skills.)

Just a few additional thoughts. The current obsession with measuring learning certainly has some benefits (accountability is good), but it also comes with some serious drawbacks, since it diminishes all the forms of learning, like arts education, that can’t be translated into a score on a multiple choice exam. That’s why the research cited above is so important: it helps us appreciate the “soft” skills that we tend to neglect.

But I think that even this clinical evaluation of arts education misses an important benefit: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn’t need to be nurtured. But that’s false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.

Finally, I think arts education, and the self-expression it encourages, can give children a tiny taste of an essential mental state: flow. First proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a condition of complete and effortless focus, characterized by total immersion in the task at hand. We don’t notice the clock, or think about what we’re eating for lunch – we’re just thinking about what we’re doing. (Not surprisingly, people are exceedingly happy while engaged in flow activities, be it composing a poem or constructing a Legos set.*)

Children have an extraordinary natural capacity for flow. (I’ve always loved this Auden aphorism, which he adapted from Nietzsche: “Maturity – to recover the seriousness one had as a child at play.”) Unfortunately, I think most school kids never experience a taste of flow at school. Instead, they are drilled in all the usual subjects, from arithmetic to reading. The downside of this pedagogy is that it leads kids to conclude that learning is a dry and tedious pursuit, where we will always count the minutes until recess. Perhaps arts education improves our attentional system because it shows children that attention isn’t always hard work. Sometimes, we want to focus, because we enjoy what we’re focused on.

*I once wrote an entire essay in grad school on the presence of flow in the novels of John Updike. I think one of the reasons Updike was so interested in sex was that he saw the act of sex as a prime example of flow, a blessed state of grace in which we glimpse our larger purpose. Unfortunately, for most adults sex is their only flow experience, as work is full of meaningless drudgery.


  1. #1 Sophie Nicholls
    November 2, 2009

    I am a therapist and research the use of creative writing in health care. I run a very popular Online Programme in Creative Writing for Personal Development that provides adults with an opportunity to (re)connect with their creatvity.

    It is always good to see research that underpins this kind of work and suggests that activities such as creative writing improve attention and cognition. I also agree with you that opportunities for flow experience and for getting our inner feelings ‘out there’ in words, paint or music are crucial to our well-being.

  2. #2 Brandon
    November 2, 2009

    Recess, gym, art, music, and library are slowly being groomed out of the average school day in order to increase the amount of class time. These activities, because they engage children in flow and subsequently improve the development of maintaining attention on a specific task, increase the efficiency of time spent in class. These ‘soft’ activities have the potential to increase a school’s bottom line: test scores. We should be working towards quality of class-time, rather than sheer quantity.

  3. #3 Marc
    November 2, 2009

    This is stupid:

    “We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art–if we practice frequently and are truly engaged–activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.”

    The same logic applies to absolutely any process that anyone practices frequently and is truly engaged in; from sport to computer games to masturbation.

    It’s basically irrelevant (in this particular circumstance, rather than more generally) whether or not art makes better people – both you and the authors of this study want to believe it and will take any flimsy evidence as enough to claim it.

  4. #4 Sarah
    November 2, 2009

    Marc- You’re incorrect, even if you’re right (which I’m not sure you are). “Absolutely any process that anyone practices frequently and is truly engaged in” is not of equal value on its own. Additionally, every process is not equally engaging. Art is positive in its own right, as given by our own sense that this is the case, and also some of the other things Jonah mentions. This citation says that doing engaging things strengthens our cognition overall. Art is an engaging thing. Therefore, art is good for overall cognition. Other things may be good as well, but to justify substituting them for art, they would have to be better in their own right. Therefore, art should not be considered something that detracts from the rest of education, but one that builds separate skills while strengthening the core of the individual.

  5. #5 royniles
    November 2, 2009

    “strengthening of their brains’ attention networks” or “strengthens the brain’s attention system” are rather dull ways to state what art does for the viewer, especially the really good stuff. It’s as if the writer of those phrases was instructed to “round up the usual ambiguities.”

    Good art, and visual art in particular, asks questions that have the emotional power to compel you, the viewer, to search for the answer within the artwork itself. There’s a contemplative force there that almost no other medium possesses.

  6. #6 William
    November 2, 2009

    I am unconvinced by the profundity of the children study – while it is known that children can increase their IQ scores by pushing them in certain ways (such as music training), it is also well documented that this advantage will be negated by adolescence. Unless the advantages can be sustained in adults it, it seems rather insignificant to me.

  7. #7 Marc
    November 3, 2009

    Sarah – I disagree that art is necessarily positive in it’s own right. But that’s not really the point.

    In the statement that I’ve quoted the authors of the study have merely suggested that anything that you are interested in improves cognition. There’s absolutely no valid reason to pick out art above the infinite number of other things that you could also be interested in.

    Here’s a test to see what I mean; replace the word art with another word and see if the paragraph still makes sense. If it does then you’ve shown that their argument is an entirely general one for focussed attention improving cognition – and nothing to do with art.

    That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t do a study to test which pastimes were the best at focussing attention and therefore getting these cognition benefits. If that turned out to be art then you’d have a valid argument. It’s just not there yet…

  8. #8 Zoasterboy
    November 3, 2009

    Marc – I see what you mean, but I think some activities really are better at improving cognitive performance. Maybe limiting it to the generic art and music should be rethought, though.

    For me, real flow is expressed when I’m programming. I’ve come home from a toilsome day at school and spent 13 hours (3pm to 4am) programming, for fun. This is a bit of an extreme example, and I don’t do that often, but my point is that flow activities should be chosen by the individual.

    I also find flow in art, acting, and music, but these are still not as powerful for me as programming.

  9. #9 ohmyben
    November 3, 2009

    Ha hilarious, yeah why should we encourage children to engage cultural activities, listening or especially playing music activates more areas of the brain than other activity, waste of time. Art is about the process of cultures coming to terms with itself- stupid as well, it encourages abstract thinking and problem solving, not to mention nothing in our culture is visually influenced. What kids need is to be force fed quantified information and tested repeatedly on it, so that when they are on their own at their job they can ace those standarized tests….

  10. #10 Creative Exercise Advocate
    November 3, 2009

    The conscious mind is in part defined by self expression. We will inevitably feel the urge to express ourselves and our thoughts creatively. But we can have guidance and encouragement in this, just as we can with any other skill. Some will have the facility regardless of such encouragement. For others such encouragement will be essential.

  11. #11 Roblin
    November 4, 2009

    Creative work like painting and building can be a great way to trigger flow in children at school, but it’s not the only way. Csíkszentmihályi contends that flow results from the proper balance between a student’s skills and challenges. Perhaps, e.g., painting is an easy gateway to flow because it requires little skill (at least initially).

    But the deeper lesson here, I think, is that skills and challenges across subjects and projects and disciplines likely need to be better balanced. Why not strive for flow in math and writing as well as painting and dance? After all, for Csíkszentmihályi flow is a topic-neutral concept, exemplified in the professional athlete, the concert cellist, the mathematician–anywhere where people find themselves immersed in their work/performance and intrinsically motivated to remain that way.

  12. #12 Jean
    November 5, 2009

    With what I’m seeing between the comments and the article, people are in a healthy debate. Although as a personal point of view, this is such a great post. I am for one a music maker and free lance writer. May sound bias to some of the posters, but in the end if you really are into art, in any form, this specific flow state is reasonable. Why stop when you are happy? I came across a creative writing site for kids that encourages and teaches them to like writing. At a setting like this, you’ll be able to find a kid flowing for sure, since he’d be the one who won’t like to stop as said. Some may not like what they’re doing but this only means they aren’t interested. So why force? if this is a kids flow or an adults, then let it be. People express themselves differently. It only is a matter of appreciating and understanding.

  13. #13 Meryl
    November 5, 2009

    Dear Jonah, Thanks so much for this post. I’d sent this post’s weblink to the principals of the arts preschool and drama school which my 5 year old son is attending.

    I live in Singapore where academic competitiveness over-rides most other artistic inclinations in a child’s development – at least for now…things are slowly changing!!

    I have kick-started oil painting when I was 37 after my first miscarriage. The flow in oil painting is not just engrossing, but healing. The intense focus, before, during and after the completion of a composition is soul-elevating. There have been times when I’d looked at my paintings, and thought to myself, damn, I am good at this. *heh*

    Enjoy enjoy enjoy.

  14. #14 SsD
    November 7, 2009

    Art is how we as a society address the question, “How shall we live?” It is where we negotiate our individual and shared identities. It is how we make flexible patterns out of a chaotic world. And through art, we negotiate our future as a culture and as a species. It seems so bizarre to me to be debating the merits of raising emotionally healthy people who have a variety of interests and skills.

  15. #15 Kevin Vogelsang
    November 10, 2009

    I found the study the less compelling part of this post. I do agree that art in school is a very undervalued subject. (I wish I could’ve spent more time on it.)

    But, I think the main point is that we should think more about getting kids into a state of flow, which will inevitably vary by individual.

    Education needs to be revolutionized. This is a good pillar. Getting people engaged is the hardest step.

  16. #16 sere serpe
    November 16, 2009

    I agree whole-heartedly. Experience and hubris should not qualify as grounds for trust and reward.

  17. #17 Jorge Jimenez
    December 4, 2009

    As a public school k-12 music teacher, I very much appreciate this article. I’ve discovered in my short five years of teaching that students today expect everything to be fast, easy and require little to no genuine thought or effort. When students can get so many things with the push of one button, it makes teaching someone how to play a clarinet seem pretty old fashioned. Successfully executing any form of art requires real thought and effort and so many of my own students are almost surprised that they have to think and be engaged in playing in band or singing in choir. The real key then is to make the process enjoyable so that real flow occurs and the student WANTS to be engaged. I hope that more people start to see the value of an arts education and do not forget the ultimate purpose of art in the first place: To Create & Express.

    “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.”

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