Art on the Brain: How participation in the arts improves brain funcion
What effect do 'the arts' have on the intellect? The answer may be more surprising than you think!
The first present my aunt received at her recent baby shower was a Baby Mozart disk. Just turn it on when she's taking a nap, the gift-giver told her, and your baby will be a genius by the time she enters kindergarten!
...While the results may not be quite that dramatic, science indicates that the Mozart lady was on to something. Recent studies have shown a correlation between participation in the arts and increased brain function. The three main areas that have been studied are dance, music, and drama, and all three areas have yeilded some astonishing results.
Dance evolved as a way for humans to communicate thoughts, feelings, and stories before we had the words to describe what we were thinking. Today it spans nearly every culture, encompassing dozens of different styles. But one common theme discovered by scientists in a Dana Consortium study entitled "Learning, Arts, and the Brain" is that no matter what type of music was used, the ability to learn dance steps increased learning capacity. The reason? Learning dance steps requires effective observation and the ability to translate that observation into motion in your own body. This highly physical form of learning increases function of the motor cortex and can help individuals learn better in other physical or observational learning situations.
Another area of the arts that has been documented as increasing brain function is the area of music. The lady who gave my aunt the Baby Mozart CD was right in telling her it would increase her daughter's cognitive skills, but this effect is not limited to babies, or Mozart. A study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences states that listening to any enjoyable music, at any age, enhances cognition by causing neurons to fire in lesser-used parts of the brain. But music has an even greater impact on the brain if one is actively studying it. Learing and practicing music actually increases the amount of gray matter in the auditory cortex, which increases brain function in that area. And learning music or using music as a pneumonic device aids memory by storing the information in more areas of the brain and creating connections between these areas.
The final well-documented area in which the arts may increase the intellect is drama. According to the Dana Consortium study, the interest in performing leads to a state of high motivation, which can increase a person's attention span and ultimately help them to focus not only on drama, but in other areas of learning. And acting training improves memory by forcing performers to learn lines and movements for the performance. But you don't have to be directly involved with drama for this area of the arts to aid your brain. A study done by the University of Liverpool in 2006 showed that reading Shakespeare actually increased brain function because the readers were forced to make connections to earlier passages and translate his sometimes cryptic writing into something more digestible.
Participation in the arts has been shown to have a dramatic effect on brain function and the intellect. Dance, music, and drama are the three main areas that have been the focus of recent studies, and all three areas have been shown to increase brain function. Dance can aid learning by teaching individuals to observe and then translate their observations into action. Music can aid memory and cognition both by listening and practicing. And drama can increase an individual's attention span and help their memory as well as improve general brain function. My aunt was less than happy about receiving a Baby Mozart disk at her shower. But perhaps she should reonsider her decision to throw the disk away. After all, music - and the arts in general - really does make you smarter.