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How engagement in the arts engages the brain

When it comes to the arts, practice not only makes perfect, it also appears to improve thinking skills — and perhaps even IQ.

That’s the hypothesis put forth in a recent article in the Dana Foundation’s online magazine Cerebrum — an article that not only offers vindication to all parents (mea culpa) who’ve ever insisted that their children practice their piano scales or pirouettes, but also to all taxpayers who decry cuts in arts education in our public schools.

For the article suggests that if parents and educators really want to improve their children’s performance in the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), they’d be very unwise to deemphasize (and defund) courses in the arts.

In fact, the article cites several recent studies that have found promising, if preliminary, associations between intensive music and visual arts training and improved math and reading skills.

How could singing a choral part in Handel’s “Messiah” or creating a Hockney-like photocollage or even performing Hamlet’s soliloquy help with other learning tasks? Here’s the explanation from the authors of the Cerebrum article, the eminent psychologist Michael Posner and freelance science writer Brenda Patoine:

[F]ocused 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.

The key words there are “practice frequently” and “truly engaged.” For focused training is not the same as playing a Mozart CD over and over again to your infant — or even taking your child to hear a Mozart concerto every so often at Orchestra Hall.The so-called “Mozart effect” — the idea that simply listening to classical music improved students’ spatial reasoning skills — has been pretty much debunked. Scientists have been unable to replicate the findings from the study that first reported the phenomenon.

The true Mozart effect (if you want to call it that) involves much, much more than brief exposures to music, argues Posner and Patoine. It requires ongoing musical (or other arts) training.

That’s right: As with almost anything that’s good for your body or brain, you need to do the work to reap the benefit. The daily scales on the piano. The endless pirouettes.

But we shouldn’t expect training in the arts to always improve thinking skills. “No single art form is interesting to all people, and some people may never warm up to any type of art,” note Posner and Patoine. “Individual differences in relevant brain networks, which are probably genetically influence to some degree, help explain this variability in both appreciation of and ability to create art.”

Despite such caveats, the two authors believe new research findings “give parents and educators one more reason to encourage young people to find an art form they love and to pursue it with passion. … From our perspective, it is increasingly clear that with enough focused attention, training in the arts likely yields cognitive benefits that go beyond ‘art for art’s sake.’ Or, to put it another way, the art form that you truly love to learn may also lead to improvements in other brain functions.”

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