A session entitled “Arts, Music, and the Brain: How the Arts Influence Us from Youth to Maturity” drew a standing room only crowd in a late afternoon session on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.
Four speakers came at the topic from slightly different angles. The common denominator: In addition to anecdotal evidence and common sense, improved imaging and sound wave technology has helped neuroscientists demonstrate that arts and music boost cognitive function across social economic class, age, gender, and ethnicity.
First up was Ping Ho, M.A., M.P.H., founder and director of UCLArts and Healing, an organization aimed at transforming lives through creative expression and self-discovery. She believes that arts and music are an extension of self, as well as a window to the soul. To demonstrate stress release, she asked the audience to pick up a piece of plain white paper left on each seat and use it to express stress. Massive crumpling and tearing ensued. She then asked the audience to tap rhythmically on their thighs to facilitate the feeling of a drum circle. “These are key therapeutic elements,” she said. “They are process over product and the language of non judgement. These exercises remove the fear of making mistakes and allow for positive risk taking.”
Nina Kraus, Ph.D., professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and physiology, otolaryngology at Northwestern University, demonstrated social and emotional engagement in infants by showing a video of two babies eating peas. Once a song is played, they respond by swaying back and forth, with big grins across their faces. “Sound is invisible, yet one of the most powerful forces in our lives,” she said.
Kraus discussed studies in Chicago and Los Angeles where her team went into poor urban schools and looked at how students from different backgrounds responded to music education. Over a two-year period, the team found that students who responded better maintained their reading scores. “Measuring the impact of sound is expensive and complicated,” she said, “but we are working to make a more affordable device to measure and help teachers with social change.”
Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of This Is Your Brain on Music, showed a slide that portrayed the infiltration of sound waves into almost every section of the brain. He cited study after study that demonstrated the benefits of music in brain development, social engagement, learning, and aging. He also provided strong anecdotal evidence, offering a story about the rural, poor, central California community in which he was raised. He believes that because the school district had such a strong music program, a high number of people benefitted from their early involvement with music by going on to accomplished careers in music and other fields.
Kenneth Elpus, Ph.D., assistant professor of music education at the University of Maryland—and the only non-neuroscience person on the panel—gave an impressive slide show presentation on music education and public policy. After a career as a high school music teacher in an upscale New Jersey school district, was inspired to pursue his doctorate degree after a new school superintendent decided that the district should not be subsidizing music education.
Elpus explained that as students progress from the primary grades into middle school and then high school, music and arts education tends to decrease. With all the proven cognitive and social benefits that the arts have to offer, he said, this trend is very disturbing and—based on all the evidence put forth by the speakers before him—needs to be reversed.