Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arts Training and the Brain

This article is the most in depth I've seen so far on the topic of how arts training benefits the brain.

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. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.

Some may construe this argument as a bold associative leap, but it’s grounded in solid science. The linchpin in this equation is the attention system. Attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. If you really want to learn something, pay attention! We all know this intuitively, and plenty of strong scientific data back it up. . . 

. . . From our perspective, the key to transfer is diligence: Practicing for long periods of time and in an absorbed way can cause changes in more than the specific brain network related to the skill. Sustained focus can also produce stronger and more efficient attention networks, and these key networks in turn affect cognitive skills more generally. . . 

. . . Neuroimaging studies have also proved that the following specialized neural networks underlie various aspects of attention:

alerting network, which enables the brain to achieve and maintain an alert state;
orienting network, which keeps the brain attuned to external events in our environment;
executive attention network, which helps us control our emotions and choose among conflicting thoughts in order to focus on goals over long periods of time. . . 

. . . exposure to the “right” art form can fully engage children’s attention and can be highly rewarding for them. They may get so involved in learning the art that they lose track of time or even “lose themselves” while practicing it. I believe that few other school subjects can produce such strong and sustained attention that is at once rewarding and motivating. That is why arts training is particularly appealing as a potential means for improving cognition. Other engaging subjects might be useful as well, but the arts may be unique in that so many children have a strong interest in them.

The article makes clear we're in early days yet in figuring all this out, but that it all looks very promising. 

On a language note, I particularly like their using "engagement" when talking about the children and music making. In working with clients, my prime directive has always been to do whatever I can to get them more fully engaged in music making. I think for a lot of educators, especially those overloaded with students and work, the engagement factor is up to the student and if they drop out for lack of it, it's better for those remaining in the program.

Of course, a lot of educators go out of their way to keep their students engaged. Martin I. Gaines, who sent me this article, somehow managed to direct our community band in it's first year with me blatting along on the horn from a standing start. I thought about quitting several times, but his enthusiasm and support kept me there. A great example of his attitude was right after our first concert and I apologized for all the wrong notes I'd played. Without missing a beat he said, with a huge grin, "But think of all the ones you got right!" 

Thanks, maestro!

No comments:

Post a Comment