The Frontal Cortex

Arts Education

Reposted from last year:

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.

My one worry with these empirical defenses of arts education is that they ultimately fail to explain why teaching kids about Picasso or Mozart is superior to video games. After all, numerous studies of video game enthusiasts have found marked improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing”. One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just ten days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent arcade game, subjects showed dramatic increases in visual attention and memory. Does this mean we should supplant arts education with World of Warcraft? I hope not. What I do think it demonstrates, however, is the fundamental limitation of making a case for arts education by relying too heavily on cognitive measures that can be quickly assessed in a lab.

My own defense of arts education relies more heavily on a rather nebulous mental skill: 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 Gopherus Agassizii
    May 14, 2010

    I’ve never been a fan of the notion of self-expression, and have always seen artistic work as a way to take part in something uniquely human that connects us with our past and future in a way that working or blogging never will.

    You can feel the presence of the artist in his or her work, and that felt sense is undeniable but ineffable. Knowing Ovid or Chaucer or Dickinson is knowing what makes you human but eternal.

  2. #2 Maximilian Koskull
    May 14, 2010

    “Does this mean we should supplant arts education with World of Warcraft?”

    I do not think that you have to see it as a `one-or-the-other`-model. Probably our cognitive mechanisms work at best, if they get influences from a lot of different fields. That includes arts, sports, maths, literature, …, and of course games, too. But – the mix is important!

    “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.”

    I totally agree with you!
    Feelings and learning of / for creativity, harmony, uniqueness, and maybe even offensiveness (since f.i. not all paintings are so harmonious as Caspar David Friedrich´s landscapes – and of course they do not have to and shouldn´t be all alike!) can be transferred in a very good way by the help of arts and arts education.

  3. #3 Debbie Hampton
    May 14, 2010

    I think that is the secret, the magic….to find this flow in several facets of life….whether it be something artistic, a video game, work or sex. Whatever…just find it! This flow is the natural energy with which we engage in something and give it our focus. It is a two way street. The act of focusing and allowing ourselves to experience the flow of something repeatedly changes our brain. Therein is our power of choice and our magic wand.

  4. #4 vivi
    May 15, 2010

    do you know “The courage to create”, by Rollo May?

  5. #5 Mike Marinos
    May 16, 2010

    I’m always struck when looking at paintings and drawings I really like, how I get physical movements in my hands, tracing the hand movement of the creator. I’ve had it since very young and it doesn’t happen to all work I look at. I have been wondering lately if the works I respond to where created in flow and that these works somehow transmit better the “expression” of creator.
    The odd thing about “self expression ” if it is related to flow, is that in flow, self is the last thing that seems to be held in awareness.

  6. #6 Melody
    May 17, 2010

    I ran into your general blog while looking for background information/inspiration for art(dopamine). I’m glad I decided to check out recent posts! I think an additional benefit of arts classes is the chance for kids to be inquisitive. Kids can safely ask “what if…?” when creating a painting or song and experiment in a way classes based on memorization won’t allow. Inquisitiveness sure comes in handy when your “what if?” helps lead you to ideas kids will be memorizing in the future.

  7. #7 Zack Brown
    May 17, 2010

    “My one worry with these empirical defenses of arts education is that they ultimately fail to explain why teaching kids about Picasso or Mozart is superior to video games.”

    Why all the hate for video games? If you can’t empirically prove the ‘superiority’ of Picasso and Mozart over video games, maybe (just maybe) it doesn’t exist.

  8. #8 jb
    May 17, 2010

    I recently had lunch with a JHU student who was a little groggy having played first shooter video games until 3am. At Buddhist seminary in February I had heard that there are 5 conditions necessary to plant a seed of rebirth in a lower realm: having a strong emotion, say anger, directing it at a being, thinking of hurting this being in revenge, acting on it, and having no regrets. Since all of these conditions can be present when one plays a first shooter game, and since one can imagine, say, playing a piano and the same brain areas light up as when you actually play a piano, how different karmically is killing a pretend human in a game compared to a real human. Society holds these to be very different activities but does the brain?
    I just heard on NPR that the Air Force now hires more recruits to be drone pilots than ‘real’ pilots and I’ve read that drone pilots who fly real unmanned planes by computer and kill real people (the drones can fly back to targets and film the bombing results) suffer PTSD even though they are not in the Middle East, live in a suburb of Los Vegas, work at an airbase near there, and are condoned by society to do this.
    In Buddhism there is no St. Peter at the pearly gates; one has a life review as one dies and one chooses where to go next. If indeed this is not the end of life, where will we go next? See the TV series LOST for various scenarios.

  9. #9 Stephen Baker
    May 17, 2010

    Funny, I associate Updike’s sex scenes with ruminations on infidelity and death. Maybe I focus too much on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom…

  10. #10 Sarah
    May 17, 2010

    Totally agree about the importance of fostering self-expression; without music training, my childhood (and current life) would have been much more dreary and dry. Also couldn’t agree more on flow. I recently changed my career plans so that I could experience flow every day, and get paid for it. I’d much rather get paid a little less for a job I can immerse myself in than more for work I often find tedious.

    Art education is a vital part of helping children find what makes them “flow,” giving them confidence and personal drive to achieve their goals.

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  12. #12 Claire C Smith
    May 21, 2010

    Interesting. The flow idea is good. It takes all sorts!

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