Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Arts and Smarts

In March The Dana Consortium released a compilation of research dealing with the arts and cognition. How does studying music or dance or the visual arts affect brain development and learning? I’ve been fascinated with this topic ever since the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller at the time, proposed providing the parents of every newborn in the state with a CD of classical music to play for their infants. The Mozart effect promised to boost performance, particularly in math, simply by listening to classical music. Music could make you smarter.

Well, maybe not. A small study that showed improved performance on a paper folding task after some of the subjects had listened to Mozart became headline news in a media hungry for big stories. Other studies that showed temporary, but not lasting, boosts to IQ (which itself raises interesting questions about what IQ really measures) fueled the media flames. The fact that subsequent studies showed that similar increases in performance could be sparked by other relaxation techniques did little to dampen the media-whipped excitement around the Mozart effect. Naturally, those follow-up studies received fair exposure in academic journals, but the popular media had little interest. Bold stories sell papers (or clicks on the Internet). Nuance is too complicated.

But nuance is often the true story behind the research that makes headlines in the popular press (as opposed to the academic journals). Whenever I see a story, even in Education Week, about a dramatic research finding, I track down the source article in the academic journals. How was the research conducted? What do the results really tell us?

The Dana Consortium report does a wonderful job of describing the bits we know and the many questions we still need to answer about the arts and cognition. Learning music intensely, for instance, does seem to make a difference in academic performance. Just listening to music or the occasional weekend music lesson doesn’t reveal any meaningful differences. But serious music study does appear to have a positive spillover effect on academic tasks.

However, the report cautions that it isn’t clear that music is what makes the difference or just the intense study of a subject. Learning music teaches students how to focus their attention, and that habit may be the key underlying skill for success in other areas. Or maybe there is something about music in particular. Of all the activities studied by brain imaging techniques, performing music lights up the most parts of the brain. While the question lingers, there’s certainly no harm in encouraging music study among our children. It does seem to make a positive difference for whatever reason. I see it in my teenage son, who is a serious music student and a successful school student. Like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt.

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