How Arts Training Influences Cognition
By Michael Posner, Ph.D., Mary K. Rothbart, Ph.D., Brad E. Sheese, Ph.D., and Jessica Kieras, Ph.D., University of Oregon
The authors of the study sought to examine how arts training can improve cognition via attention mechanisms in the brain. They hypothesized that executive attentional areas of the brain can be improved through specific training. Enthusiasm for the arts, including music, might allow children to pay closer attention to artistic pursuits. This enthusiasm may therefore lead to improved motivation, allowing for better attention, and therefore cognitive improvement.
Surveys with adults showed that interest in a particular art correlated with actual engagement in the art. A general openness towards the arts led to an appreciation for the arts (except dance, which it seems the survey did not define well as some took it to refer to dancing that happens socially, rather than as a performance art).
Tests on children showed that motivation (by means of a reward or through knowing how they did on a task) leads to better performance on tasks, especially when the motivation is sustained for longer periods. They stated that “findings support the idea that interest in the arts allows for sustained attention, providing an increased opportunity for the training to be effective”, though the way the study specifically supports this is unclear. By their own admission, “[t]he link between arts training and motivation, though plausible, remains speculative, and needs to be tested through experimental research.” Nonetheless, the idea is that if children are open to and interested in the arts, then they are likely to be motivated to pursue that art and to sustain attention through artistic activities.
The researchers also used attention training to examine the executive attentional network (midline and lateral frontal areas) in the brain, which is engaged in self-regulation of cognition and emotion. The aim of this training, which was related to emotion and cognition regulation, was to see if it improves cognition. The exercises were designed to be interesting and motivating. EEG results showed that the training did improve the function of the executive attentional network in resolving conflict. The network in these children (6-year-olds) resembled that of adults. These children also scored better on intelligence tests.
Not all children benefited from the attention training. Genetic differences seem dependent on the form of a dopamine transmitter gene present in the child. The researchers involved in this study are therefore continuing research in genetics to determine whether certain genes lead to interest in the arts, and to greater attention.
The ability to sustain attention is usually a characteristic teachers long to find and further develop in their students. Often, we associate attention or focus with learning, or at least the increased possibility of it. Teaching very young children has certainly posed many challenges for me and I continually seek ways to attract their attention.
Unfortunately, this article did not specify the tasks involved in the attention training given to children. The researchers assume that interest creates motivation and sustained attention, but do not explain how the latter can be improved by certain activities. In this study, the attention tasks used seem to be related to conflict tasks, though it is not very clear. In the introduction, they state that the training consisted of conflict resolution training, but their outline of the actual study conflates the details of the tasks, making it difficult to give a clear summary. They say that the conflict-resolution tasks were interesting in the way they “assume arts training to be for children with the appropriate interests.” It would have been helpful to know what caught the children’s interests.
I also noticed that this study used training exercises that were not artistic, but it nonetheless claims that artistic training likely improves attention and that this would translate to improved overall cognition. Supporting the hypothesis about the link between the arts and cognition without using artistic tasks leaves me wanting further direct explanation.
From my own experience, it does seem that musical training instills a sense of focus and perseverance that is linked to motivation. The physical and mental training involved in acquiring skills of musicianship require patience, and continued practice may train the executive attentional networks of the brain in the way any continued exercise reinforces neuronal pathways in the brain. I continue to wonder how to train these networks, though. I find that studies on attention as it relates to music frequently claim that music study improves attention but the “how” question has not been answered in any study I’ve come across. I think many teachers would benefit from knowing the types of activities that train students to focus.