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School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Arts, Neurosciences, and Learning

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Arts, Neurosciences, and Learning

by James E. Zull

What do we mean by "art?" This question is not a new one, but it keeps coming back to puzzle us and stimulate our thinking. We do believe that arts are valuable, even essential, in a fulfilling life. When we make this claim, we are thinking mainly of the traditional definition of arts: music, dance, drawing, theater, and so on. And it is this belief that leads us to include these arts in the school curriculum.

But we also have a broader concept of art. It seems that we all have our "art." Be it the painter with a brush, a successful businessman, a mother comforting her crying child, or the paper-boy distributing the morning paper on each doorstep as he flys by on his bike, whatever we have mastered in our life can be considered our "art."

One facet that is common in all these arts is the sense of mystery. We say that a person has mastered an art when they succeed but can't say how. Wonderful things happen but no one is able to dissect the steps or write out the formula for success. It is just an art!

Is it possible, then, to discuss art in terms of science? If all human behavior and achievement is the result of physical and chemical events in our brain, then ultimately we should be able to do this. But we are skeptical. In fact, if we actually could describe the science behind an art, we might wonder if it would still be an art. Maybe the act of description is also an act of destruction.

But this negative view of science goes against our broad definition of art. The neuroscientist is also an artist. The very process of seeking understanding has its own mysteries. So we continue to ask questions and try experiments that probe the "hows" and "whys" of art. We seek for the connections between art, thought, and learning. And we continue to believe that the arts are essential in school, as essential, or in some cases even more essential than what are normally called the "basics."

So what are we discovering? What has the art of neuroscience told us about the arts and learning?

One thing we have found is that the brain physically changes when we learn. And that change is most extensive and powerful when emotion is part of the learning. The chemicals of emotion, such as adrenalin, serotonin, and dopamine act by modification of synapses; and modification of synapses is the very root of learning. Changing connections in the brain is learning. In some cases, such change does not occur at all unless the emotion chemicals and structures in the brain are engaged.

The important idea, then, is that the arts trigger emotion. This could be part of the answer to our question above: what is art? Artists create things that engage others, emotionally. And, of course creating itself is engaging—the artist also feels emotion. The arts, then, change the brain of both the creator, and the consumer.

Another thing that changes synapses in the brain is practice. We learn the things that we repeat the most. But we repeat the things that we care about. So we enjoy the arts and repeat them over and over. This intensity of effort and focus is healthy for learning. It also changes the brain.

There are other lessons we can learn about the connections between arts and neuroscience. For example, the reward chemicals such as dopamine have their primary effects on our frontal cortex. Dopamine is produced in the brainstem, which is the oldest part of the brain evolutionarily speaking, but the dopamine is released in the newest region of cortex, the part that we use to create ideas, make decisions, and plan our actions. Thus, we feel rewarded when we create new objects or actions. And since creativity is based on the decisions made by the creator, the reward system kicks in when we are in control and inventing things that we have thought of ourselves. Freedom and ownership are part and parcel of the neurochemistry of the arts.

The importance of the arts in school, then, is strongly associated with motivation and interest. Students love and remember their art classes, theater experiences, musical performances, and creative writing. But beyond this, they may also love their algebra, chemistry, and history. In fact, they will love these academic experiences if we allow the normal neurochemistry of learning to take over. To the extent that they provide freedom, creativity, and mastery, the academic basics become an "art."

Realizing the centrality of arts for learning is important not only for teachers and school administrators, but for parents, and for society at large. Often when budget cuts loom, a levy doesn't pass, or a wage dispute arises, schools begin to cut out the arts. Since they are so much fun, there is an assumption that the arts are less important. However, the findings of neuroscience now allow us to defend our belief in their value. We may even see change in society at large, and see learning increase because of it.

About the Author

James Zull is Professor of Biology and Director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education at Case Western Reserve University. To read a description of his book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, see Another article on our website by Professor Zull is What is "The Art of Changing the Brain?" You may email Professor Zull at

© March 2005

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