Arts and Cognition

Molly Walker

In the tradition of Dana, an ancient Pali word meaning generosity or giving, the Dana Foundation funded the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium in July 2004, to study the effect of the arts on learning. At the GIA conference in Los Angeles, October 2005, Michael Gazzaniga, director of the Consortium1, described a three-year study being undertaken by the Con-sortium as "the first extensive scientific attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the role of arts education in changing the brain."

The Consortium, which includes Laura-Ann Petitto and Kevin Dunbar at Dartmouth College, Elizabeth Spelke at Harvard University, Mark D'Esposito at the University of California, Berkeley, John Jonides at the University of Michigan, Michael Posner and Helen Neville at the University of Oregon, Brian Wandell at Stanford University, and Gazzaniga, seeks to answer questions such as whether education in the arts has a beneficial effect on learning in other academic areas, whether it stimulates cognitive processes that may have more general effects on a variety of tasks, and whether it is possible to identify the brain mechanisms that are influenced by training in the arts. In the process, the group aims to discover if there is a causal relationship between arts training and non-arts areas like science, math, language, and social interaction.

To some extent, the Consortium's study, which is still in progress, builds on what is already known. An earlier study, for example, published in Psychological Science by E. Glenn Schellenberg from the University of Toronto, seemed to find that "music lessons enhance IQ." An equally interesting finding arose out of one of the Schellenberg study's control groups. Some of what the study found was not particularly surprising: children who engaged in either drama or music lessons showed pre- to post-test improvement in cognitive functioning. Those who received music lessons improved their IQ scores slightly, while those in the control groups did not. Those in the control group who engaged in drama improved their adaptive social behaviors, while those taking music lessons did not. However, what is significant in both this control-group finding and Schellenberg's overall finding is that improvement in behavior could be extended from the activity itself (music or drama) to something removed from the activity (IQ or social skills).2 The belief in "far transfer" is central to Western concepts of education. Formal education is promoted not only for gaining literacy and numeracy skills and specific knowledge in various domains, but also for developing the capacity for reasoning and critical thinking."

The Consortium's work holds promise for me. As a member of a small family foundation, I am often called upon to defend our arts funding. When so many social concerns are so press-ing, when people and the environment are destroyed by wars and conflicts, the competition for funding is intense and the arts can seem both elitist and a luxury. Yet, like many individ-ual donors, I know that studying and experiencing the arts makes a big difference in my life and I watch the difference it can make in the lives of others. While many foundations with long traditions of funding the arts may not require additional hard evidence, many others seek it and may use it in their arguments for initiatives such as re-introducing the performing arts into schools. Cognitive neuroscience and potential suggested by the Consortium's work offer the possibility of more closely "cost justifying" the arts and arts training in a world beset by the need to better train students to compete effectively.

The possibility of drawing a more conclusive relationship between arts training and overall improvement in brain functioning is exciting. Because in my own life I regularly see the improvement in psychological well-being that happens when students of meditation learn, first, to be more observant and, then, to be non-reactive, I'm intrigued by the attempt to explain why students who take part in the arts do better academically and by the effort to establish a causal relationship — if one exists.

As an arts funder, parent, and teacher, I have watched with some pain as arts programs have been removed from the regular school curriculum. As a participant in community dance and theater performances, I've noticed, anecdotally, that young adults with significant emotional problems benefit from being part of a cast and that their over-all functioning improves. I've also noticed the decline they exhibit after the play is over.

The Arts Cognition Consortium's study will ask several questions of groups ranging in age from four years to more than eighty years. The questions will explore how the brain proc-esses information. The resulting findings may answer questions like these:

• Does training in the arts change how the brain processes information?
• Do the changes affect how new information is acquired?
• Which brain regions that are activated by arts training can be used in other tasks?
• Is there a critical period in a person's life for acquiring an arts education?

Cognitive neuroscience offers some precision to the search for more exact descriptions of how the brain actually works. To offer one example, according to some research reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and summarized in Harvard Magazine3, the formation of verbs is located in the left frontal lobe, adjacent to the so-called motor strip (precentral gyrus) which contains the neurons that generate movement throughout the body; the adjacent area is involved with planning the motion. Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin has identified activity in the basal ganglia (motor regions) in practiced meditators who are generating compassion. The finding surprised the researchers because the region identified is part of the action system of the brain, though it made perfect sense to the Buddhist monks Davidson studied. Davidson sees a stronger change in the pre-frontal cortex of meditators with longer training (from 10,000 to 62,000 hour).4 The difference based on practice corresponds with anecdotal evidence that the length of time spent practicing is the biggest difference between musicians and athletes who excel and their less accomplished symphony and team players.

What can cognitive neuroscience tell us about why training in the arts improves language acquisition? What insights lie in current research on differences between right-brained indi-viduals (arts-oriented) and left-brained individuals (language-dominant)?

Dr. Gazzaniga, a psychologist and cognitive-neuroscientist, has a lifetime of research on how the brain enables the mind. He has made remarkable advances in our understanding of how the two hemispheres of our brain — the right brain and the left brain — both differ from and communicate with one another. I sometimes feel that we have two sides of the brain to prevent us from getting the right answers to the wrong questions. Now Gazzaniga and his team are engaged in an attempt to get the right answers to the right questions.

Molly Giles Walker, member of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation and a docent at the Barnes Foundation

1. Dr. Michael Gazzaniga is currently director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the President's Council on Bioethics. He has made information about brain function widely accessible to a general audience through his books, including Mind Matters and Nature's Mind, and through the public television special “The Brain and the Mind.”
2. Psychological Science, E. Glenn Schellenberg, University of Toronto
3. Harvard Magazine, July August 2006, pages 15 and 18.
4. From a speech at the “Integrating Mindfulness-Based Interventions into Medicine, Health Care and Society Conference” in Worcester, Massachusetts, March 30 to April 2, 2006.