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Arts appear to play role in brain development

Classes can change brain and the way people think

For years, school systems across the nation dropped the arts to concentrate on getting struggling students to pass tests in reading and math. Yet now, a growing body of brain research suggests that teaching the arts may be good for students across all disciplines. Scientists are now looking at, for instance, whether students at an arts high school who study music or drawing have brains that allow them to focus more intensely or do better in the classroom. Washington County schools Superintendent Betty Morgan would have liked to have had some of that basic research in her hands when she began building a coalition for an arts high school in Hagerstown. The business community and school principals worked together, and the school will open this summer, but even at its groundbreaking a man objecting to the money spent on the school held up a sign of protest reading “Big Note$ Wrong Music.”
Scientists and educators aware of the gap between basic research and the school systems are
beginning to share findings, such as at this month’s seminar on the brain and the arts held at
Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
The event was sponsored by the new Neuro-Education Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University, a
center designed to bridge that gap.
Brain research in the past several years is just beginning to uncover some startling ideas about how
students learn. First came the proof, some years ago, that our brains do not lose brain cells as we get
older, but are always capable of growing.
Now neuroscientists are investigating how training students in the arts may change the structure of
their brains and the way they think. They are asking: Does putting a violin in the hands of an
elementary school student help him to do math better? Will learning to dance or paint improve a
child’s spacial ability or ability to learn to read?
Research in those areas, Harvard professor Jerome Kagan said, is “as deserving of a clinical trial as a
drug for cancer that has not yet been shown to be effective.”
There aren’t many conclusions yet that can be translated into the classroom, but there is an emerging
interdisciplinary field between education and neuroscience. Like Hopkins, Harvard also has created a
center to study learning and the brain.
Arts appear to play role in brain development — Page 1 of 3,0,4027933,print.sto… 1/06/2009Much of the research into the arts has centered on music and the brain. One researcher studying
students who go to an arts high school found a correlation between those who were trained in music
and their ability to do geometry. Yet another four-year study, being conducted by Ellen Winner of
Boston College and Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard, is looking at the effects playing the piano or the
violin has on students who are in elementary school.
Winner said she was quite skeptical of claims that schools that had introduced the arts had seen an
increase in test scores and a generally better school climate. She had previously looked at those
claims and found they couldn’t be backed up by research.
However, she is in the midst of a four-year study of elementary students that has shown some
effects: One group is learning an instrument and another is not. “It is the first study to demonstrate
brain plasticity in young children related to music playing,” Schlaug said.
The study Winner is working on has shown that children who receive a small amount of training – as
little as half an hour of lessons a week and 10 minutes of practice a day – do have structural changes
in their brains that can be measured. And those students, Winner said, were better at tests that
required them to use their fingers with dexterity.
About 15 months after the study began, students who played the instrument were not better at math
or reading, although the researchers are questioning whether they have assessments that are sensitive
enough to measure the changes. They will continue the study for several more years.
Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins doctor and a jazz musician, studied jazz musicians by using imaging
technology to take pictures of their brains as they improvised. He found that they allowed their
creativity to flow by shutting down areas that regulated inhibition and self-control. So are the most
creative people able to shut down those areas of the brain?
Most of the new research is focusing on the networks of the brain that are involved in specific tasks,
said Michael Posner, a researcher at the University of Oregon. Posner has studied the effects of
music on attention. What he found, he said, was that in those students who showed motivation and
creativity, training in the arts helped develop their attention and their intelligence. The next great
focus in this area, he said, is on proving the connection that most scientists believe exists between
the study of music and math ability.
The imaging is now so advanced that scientists can already see the difference in the brain networks
of those who study a string instrument and those who study the piano intensely.
The brain research, while moving quickly by some measures, is still painfully slow for educators
who would like answers today. Morgan, the Washington County schools chief, said some research
did help her support the drive to build the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts in Hagerstown.
Mariale Hardiman, the former principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, was once one of
those principals who focused a lot of attention on reading and math scores. But she saw what
integrating the arts into classrooms could do for students, she said, and she then began her own
research into the subject.
She is now the co-director of the Hopkins Neuro-Education Initiative. She said there are a myriad of
questions that could be answered in the research that is just starting, but there are two she would like
to see approached: Do children who learn academic content through the arts tend to hold onto that
knowledge longer? And are schools squeezing creativity out of children by controlling so much of
their school day?
Even without research though, Kagan of Harvard said there is ample evidence of the value of an arts
Arts appear to play role in brain development — Page 2 of 3,0,4027933,print.sto… 1/06/2009education because so many children who aren’t good at academics can gain self-confidence through
the arts.
“The argument for an arts education is based not on sentimentality but on pragmatism,” he said. “If
an arts program only helped the 7 million children in the bottom quartile, the dropout rate would

By Liz Bowie |
May 18, 2009, published in