Is theater the ultimate brain fitness product?

[Originally posted in April 2007]

ResearchBlogging.orgCognitive 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 DOI: 10.1177/0898264304265819

More like this

Unlike cell phones, Game Boys and Xboxes, theater work can be physically as well as mentally demanding, involving,at least, standing on your feet and projecting your voice long periods of time.

Playing a musical instrument can also be physically demanding.

The addition of a physical component can benefit older adults even more.

There is also the human contact factor. Again, Unlike cell phones, Game Boys and Xboxes, theatre for example imposes interacting with others.
I LOVED this article. Very interesting

I have been working in the brain fitness space since 2001 and we have come along way. There has been significant scientific studies over the last 5 years that illustrate how we can maintain and develop our cognitive skills through our lifespan. Our company has started to launch pilots that provide more efficacy to our software. I truly believe the next 5 years will see a lot of positive developments in this area.


So, to be clear: one group actually participated in putting on some or all of a theatrical production (the article mentions staying in character for an entire scene), a second group merely viewed works of art (presumably produced by someone else), the third group was the control... and these findings are considered significant? Really?! It seems like they could have achieved similar results if the the second group had been the audience for the first group. FWIW, I would imagine that participants in theatre would engage more problem-solving, memory-testing, and word-recall neurons than even someone who participated in creating visual works of art. But if the article describes the method accurately, then the study was a comparison of apples and oranges.

I found this article to be inspiring--it opens up a world for people that is beyond the mundane and or the computerised. It opens people up to connecting in a new way and maintains that they engage with others, which is really what I feel is most important as we age--continued engagement in the social. Unfortunately, sociality decreases significantly with age, particularly given that ageing has become understood as something that is to be institutionalised.

Well, TG, the Visual Arts group did, apparently, get into "animated discussions," so it was not as passive for them as you imply. Still, I agree that the main results, when you think about it, are not very surprising (although it seems odd that the Art group actually got worse at problem solving, and I am surprised that neither group raised their psychological well being much). I guess, though, a study like this is of rhetorical value if you are trying to persuade funders to support a theatre arts program. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be convinced by "Obviously a theatre program will benefit our old people more than an art appreciation class" (even if it is is obvious when you think about it).

Psyshrink - How funny that you call getting up, moving around, going outside and talking to other people face to face "connecting in a new way".

Interesting results. I cannot believe how much differential there was in the problem solving area. I wonder what it is about theater that makes the memory jump like that... maybe its interaction, cognitive exercises? I know that doing cognitive activities like puzzles, reading, and other brain challenges are helpful in preventing memory loss.