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Training in the arts improves thinking

It has long been observed that people who play music perform better in other academic activities. Since 2004, cognitive neuroscientists, from seven large universities in The States, have been working to understand whether ?smart people are drawn to the arts, or whether arts training makes people smart? The study group released preliminary findings earlier this month which conclude that arts training improves thinking: it improves math, reading skills and memory.

The convergence of evidence, though at this stage correlational, is overwhelmingly suggesting that people who are trained in the arts, and more specifically music, reap benefits in other academic areas.  Michael Posner, from the University of Oregan, has been investigating motivation for learning.  He has found that absorbing a child in one of the art forms is one way to train the attentional network in the brain.  To show this, he developed some games for children to play which used the same techniques that art training does.  Posner used a brain imaging technique, EEG, to measure attention in 4-7 year olds both before and after the training.  The findings showed improvement in the areas of the brain associated with attention.  His findings suggest that we can engage people to become interested in the arts.

At Harvard University, Elizabeth Spelke has been looking at whether music increases maths skills in young people.  Her findings show that young people who intensively train in music do better on geometry tests, compared to those who train in writing or theatre.  Children trained in music were much better at map reading.  This finding is thought to occur because doing music uses the same areas of the brain which represent space.

Not only is music good for math, but research from Stanford University has found that it is good for reading too: level of musical training is closely connected with reading fluency.  Brain Wandell the lead researcher, investigated the influence of various art forms on reading fluency i.e. music, dance, visual art, drama/ theatre, and found that musical training alone was correlated with the speed at which a child reads.  Not only this, but using neuro imaging techniques Wandell found that there was a connection between white matter in the brain and phonological awareness.  This connection will be further investigated.

Further studies have found that musical training also effects memory: those who are trained in music do better on storing and retrieving information in working and long term memory. 

The research is beginning to paint a picture of the relationship between training in the arts and the positive effect it has on the brain and on learning and education.  The research is ongoing.  To read the full report of the findings so far click here.  There is also a webcast of the researchers presenting their results. To listen to it click here

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