Your Brain on Arts

March 5, 2018
Kimberly L. Hyatt, President & CEO

Americans of a certain age spend an estimated $1.3 billion annually on brain training games such as Lumosity as we grasp for anything that might slow the changes that occur as our brains get older. We invest time and money even though there is no real research to support the notion these exercises work.[i] What research does show time and time again, however, is that arts education accelerates positive brain development when started at a young age.

Anyone who thinks the arts are extraneous need only look at images of brain scans to find the strongest of evidence to the contrary. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans literally show one’s brain light up when participating in a visual or performing art form.

While a human brain changes throughout life, its development is front-loaded and will take on a different structure if engaged in arts learning from a young age. Our brains quadruple in size during the preschool years and reach 90% of adult volume by the age of 6. However, structural changes continue well through childhood and adolescence, largely in response to either enrichment or deprivation of inputs.

Music is typically the first thought that enters our minds when thinking of arts learning and brain development. And there’s good reason. Scientists believe music stimulates more areas of the brain than any other function and spurs different parts of the brain to communicate with one another.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

In the same way that weight lifting changes the shape of our muscles, musical training does the same to our brains – it changes its very structure. Neurological studies using fMRI have found a host of differences between the brains of those with musical training compared to those without, including the growth of the cerebellum, the size of certain areas of the brain, plasticity and the density of both white and gray matter. Whereas playing video games results in a loss of gray matter, playing musical instruments increases it.

In addition to these structural changes, music education influences networks in the brain associated with motor skills, cognitive processing and the so-called executive functions – the ability to concentrate, see a task through to completion, self-regulate and think ahead.[ii][iii][iv] A plethora of studies show a correlation between musical training and verbal and nonverbal reasoning, language learning and mathematics proficiency.

But it’s not just music. The brain looks and acts differently when engaged in any art form. Additionally, multiple studies show these changes that occur after arts training during childhood will stay with a person into adulthood.

An ounce of prevention is surely worth a pound of cure, but children can’t be responsible for ensuring their own access to quality arts education. That’s up to us, the adults. We owe it to today’s children whether they ask for it or not.

Even children who are no more interested in playing an instrument or drawing than they are in cleaning their rooms need these opportunities throughout their childhood. Their developing brains need the arts. They may not know it, but we do.

While we are right to worry about the impact of sports trauma on young brains, we should be equally worried about the deprivation of arts learning on those same brains. And we should do something about it while there is time. Because we can.


[i] No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior, or Cognitive Performance, Journal of Neuroscience, Joseph W. Kable, M. Kathleen Caulfield, Mary Falcone, Mairead McConnell, Leah Bernardo, Trishala Parthasarathi, Nicole Cooper, Rebecca Ashare, Janet Audrain-McGovern, Robert Hornik, Paul Diefenbach, Frank J. Lee and Caryn Lerman, 2 August 2017, Vol. 37, Issue 31.

[ii] Coyle, D. (2009). The talent code: Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how. New York, NY: Bantam.

[iii] Hutchinson, S., Lee, L., gaab, N., & Schlaug, G. (2003). Cerebelllar volume of musicians. Cerebral Cortex, 13(9), 9437-949.

[iv] Wan., C., & Schlaug, G. (2013). Brain plasticity induced by musical training. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music (pp. 565-581). Waltham, MA: Elsevier.