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Study on arts and learning funded

Published August 23, 2004

Dana Foundation awards $1.85 million for brain research

Dartmouth will receive a $1.85 million grant from the Dana Foundation over three years to study the effect of the arts on learning. The New York-based foundation announced the grant on July 26.

Michael Gazzaniga, the David T. McLaughlin Distinguished University Professor, Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, as well as a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, will serve as director of a consortium that has brought together six institutions and nine principal investigators to shape the research.

"This is an innovative line of research," Gazzaniga said. "It is the first extensive scientific attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of the role of arts education in changing the brain. Up to now there have always been good correlations between children who take part in the arts and their academic performance. Now we hope to see if the relationship is causal. If it is, there will be a strong case for reintroducing the performing arts back into our schools. We shall see where these new studies take us."

Dartmouth as the lead institution will be responsible for coordination of research and disbursement of Dana funds to other Consortium institutions. Investigators from Dartmouth; Harvard University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; the University of Oregon; and Stanford University are reviewing several  key questions as part of this major research effort.

They are: Does training in the arts change how the brain processes information? Do these changes in brain processing affect how an individual acquires new information - is there a transfer to other domains or academic subjects? What brain regions are activated by arts training that may be used in other tasks? Is there a critical period for acquiring an arts education?

Each of the studies will use different populations and techniques to address the key questions under investigation, including the use of  fMRI scans and other imaging technologies. Subjects will range in age from 4 years to 80-plus years.

For example, at Dartmouth, there will be two research groups, one headed by  Kevin Dunbar, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and of Education; and one by Laura-Ann Petitto, Professor of Education and Research Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

The Dunbar group will work with college-aged students, some with intensive arts training and others with minimal training. The studies will ask if the intensive arts students are better able to allocate attention or switch attention between tasks, if there is a difference in each group's ability to use abstract knowledge, and if arts education students are apt to be more divergent than convergent in thinking. Each of these would be critical in transfer of knowledge from one domain to another.

The Petitto group will ask whether training in the arts yields enhanced language and reading in bilingual children and adults. The study includes bilingual children and adults who have been bilingual from birth and have actively maintained both languages. This group will be divided into those who have at least 10 years' experience in the arts, which began before the age of eight, and those who have less than three years. Single-language students will also be examined. Optical imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) will be part of the study.

The research in all institutions will be focused on what the effects of an arts education are on basic cognitive processes and on brain  regions responsible for these processes. These studies include the effects of arts training on language acquisition; the effects of arts education training on working memory; arts education and prefrontal cortical function; and arts education, brain development, and enhanced learning of mathematics.

The other principal investigators are: Mark D'Esposito, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, Neuroscience Institute and Department of  Psychology, University of California, Berkeley; John Jonides, Professor of Psychology, Professor, Program in Neuroscience, Co-Director, functional MRI Center, University of Michigan; Helen Neville, Director, Brain Development Lab and Professor of Psychology,  Institute of Neuroscience, Robert and Beverly Lewis Endowed Chair, University of Oregon; Michael Posner, Faculty Coordinator, Brain, Biology and Machine Initiative, University of Oregon; Elizabeth Spelke, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director, Mind, Brain and  Behavior Inter-faculty Initiative, Harvard; and Brian Wandell, Isaac and Madeline Stein Family Professor, Psychology, Neuroscience, and Electrical Engineering, Stanford.

"The Dana Foundation takes great pride in bringing together such a  prestigious group of scientists," said Edward Rover, President of the Dana Foundation. "Whatever the findings, we know that the research will help advance the fields of cognitive neuroscience and arts education."

The Dana Foundation is a private, philanthropic organization with particular interests in brain research, immunology, and arts education. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is a nonprofit organization of more than 200 neuroscientists, including ten Nobel laureates, committed to advancing public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research.

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08