Everything’s about to change…

By Samantha de Leve

Arts advocates have struggled forever to make a case for investment in arts education in schools. Sure, the arts make more well-rounded citizens. It’s less clear they produce better people. And while arts classes may improve math or science scores, so would extra math classes. Arts education may reduce crime rates, but it might not be the most efficient way to stop burglaries, either.

If you don’t already believe that learning about the arts has intrinsic value, you’re left with trying to prove practical, instrumental and concrete societal benefits, benefits that pencil out in justifying public investment. Not impossible, certainly, but difficult, given other budget priorities.

In a few short years these debates might seem quaint. Functional and structural MRI machines have recently made it possible for us to peer through the human skull and see – even if crudely for now – how the brain responds to creative stimuli from music, art, and movement.  Veritable battalions of scientists have taken the opportunity to look at the effects that arts have on us. And it’s not just how our brains respond to art, but also how, over time, our brains are rewired by them.

Doing art, like most learned activities, changes the actual neural architecture of your brain via a process called neuroplasticity, much the same way that doing a sport causes your body to build the muscles you use in that sport.  The same brain can be wired for chess or for a high score in Halo 4, depending on what you spend your time doing.

It’s also possible, even likely, that brain research will change our understanding of how creativity in general and art in particular exerts its power over us. How disappointing might it be to know that that mystic spark of inspiration is nothing more than a recreatable series of neurons firing? How might we have to rethink teaching the arts if creating great art is reduced to neurological formulae? So much for the mystery of intrinsic worth. And could you be wired up for a creative jolt calculated to produce specific outcomes?

For the moment, the greatest activity in neurological research related to the arts has been in music, because, until MRI technology, it was impossible to guess what parts of the brain produced music. It is the one art that has a completely transformative effect on the brain. Not restricted to any one part of the brain, music dances across neurons, recruiting the auditory cortex for sound, the cerebellum for the beat, even the same neural circuitry we use for reading and language, all smoothly integrated into a global process by the connection the corpus collosum creates between the hemispheres.

[Back to Arts Education and Neuroscience]

Join the conversation