Neuroscience and the Argument for Fine Arts Education

Preschool age girl drawing pictures in kindergarten classBy Suzan Mullane.

“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort whenever I am filled with music.” George Eliot clearly understood the power of music in her writing. Even Einstein said had he not been a physicist, he’d been a musician: “my brain seems to think in music.” When educators advocate the importance of the fine arts in education, like music, dance and painting, the argument of its importance is increasingly calibrated in neuroscience.

The brain is like a muscle and the arts exercise neurons in critical cerebral development, potentially lasting effects in cognitive functioning-including enhanced I.Q.s. But there’s more to the story. New brain research suggests that dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, is important to engage students in learning and listening. This is not surprising when one considers the bulk of critical research being published on the correlation between dopamine and chronic drug addictions.

Scientists now understand that the human brain craves dopamine up-lifters; certain drugs however momentarily, produce dopamine. Not surprisingly, the arts affect dopamine levels in the human brain similar to a drug. One has to only see the IPods plugged into the ears of youth to believe that theory. Perhaps Plato knew something about educational engagement when he suggested that classic education was not more important than students’ training in fine arts.

Over the past decade, I have tried to engage my students more effectively when offering directions during times of direct instruction. Teachers can sense if their students’ brains are not engaged, and given that the classroom “boy brain” can fall asleep quickly, (Gurian, 2004, King 2006), I have been known to sing directions. It awakens them! Yes, I have seen the rolling of eyes and have dealt with the laughter and delightful threats of: “Please God, I’ll focus if you don’t sing.”

I sang with kindergartners too, while teaching them to read through Orff instruments. It works! In 1998, when I taught K reading almost exclusively through music, I had 7 students out of 18 gain 3 years of reading aptitude. These little ones kept reading on their own and often sang to themselves when they had tasks to do. A form of cognitive rehearsal reinforced through music memory.

Last week, I attended commencement at my former local high school. I was there to hear my former National Honor Society President give his valedictorian speech; he did a tremendous job-an awarding winning Lincoln Douglas Debater. But when the 18 year-old senior class spokesperson rapped part of his speech for a full minute, the senior class was breathless including the administration. Indeed, we were all surprised but he was elated with the thunderous applause upon closing. He had just given his audience dopamine during a long commencement program and the audience was grateful.

Public outcries to maintain the arts in public education are not new. But in the wake of accountability and increased pressure in testing, fine arts have played a back-seat role in recent years given strained school budgets and the “Great Recession.” As states look to Common Core and the increased rigor as part of the Race to The Top initiatives, it would behoove curriculum experts to remember the arts, including multicultural arts and infuse them in course work. Why? Student engagement. Essentially, educators need to become actors and advertisers to sell our product-the love of learning. Simply put, weaving the arts into curriculum produces more active learning, which increases dopamine and memory. As districts strive to make every student college and career ready after high school, all avenues to keep kids in school and engaged is vitally important.


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