Is theater the ultimate brain fitness product?

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifCognitive 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.

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Wow, this is fascinating. We usually say people need novelty, variety and stretching practice to crosstrain our minds, and this suggests a great vehicle.

The problem-solving gain seem like too good to be true: have you reviewed the paper, and do you think that effect could be replicated elsewhere? what kind of play was it and what kind of training did participants go through?

If you are inclined to submit it, this would be a great post for the brain fitness blog carnival,

Wow! Problem solving is actually in the negative for those who took part in the "visual arts" training?

Perhaps the social aspects of theatre training are responsible for this effect? Theatre is much more collaborative than the visual arts.

By bushpigeon (not verified) on 12 Apr 2007 #permalink


Yes, Greta and I have both gone over the original research report. The problem-solving test is interesting because it was a very short test -- just two story problems. As Naresh mentions, the visual arts group actually declined in performance. But these results do appear to be reliable, and two independent raters scored the responses with very high consistency.

Naresh: Yes, the visual arts group actually decreased in performance on the story problem test -- I just think it's a very different sort of problem than what they were asked to do in visual arts training. But there was a trend (not significant) toward their performing better on memory span compared to the theater group. I think this highlights that people should engage in a variety of cognitive tasks.

Bushpigeon: I agree -- the collaborative aspects of it are very important. Social engagement is an important part of maintaining cognitive ability and overall well-being.

With n=1 I can add my experience here after over 20 years in an amateur theatre group: boy, how that changes you! And my scientific presentations have profited from it no end. From introspection (read: may be wrong) I would say it's not the social aspect so much, but:
1. having to learn your part by heart (I hate it, BTW)
2. having to play you role always, not just when you're saying your bit
3. getting feedback how people experience you -- often not what one would like to hear
4. learning to integrate said feedback into your self-image, possibly even change your character a bit, and not to ignore it
5. The novelty certainly has worn off for me -- but it is no less an intensive experience.

You know, Eve, I almost agree with you in this case. The error is substantially smaller for the well-being measure than for the other measures, and it would be good to see that visually. However, I've done so much recalculation to create the graph that I'm not sure I could even generate good error bars here -- I'm relying on the study authors' reports of significance.

And remember, too, that we're talking about a test-retest situation here, so error bars are less informative than they would be in other cases.

Hi Dave,

Does the paper build on good references? Theater has been around for a good I'd expect to see good literature around these effects, maybe helping us understand what kind of play/ role/ intensity of preparation helps accomplish better results.

This looks very promising to help bridge "education" and "lifelong learning" with "brain health", all labels that in some cases may disorient more than help.

Hi Dave,

Love your blog. Love theatre. Blogged it on my site. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. :-)


Perhaps it is because theatre people have more "problems" that they need to solve?

By Wonko the Sane (not verified) on 19 Apr 2007 #permalink