The “Art” of Being Smart

Neuroscience_Neurology.jpgA three-year multicenter study called Learning, Arts, and the Brain is finally close to solving the problem of whether art makes us smarter or whether smarter people are drawn to arts.

The question is not purely rhetorical, as in recent years educationists have debated about the relevance of arts in modern school curricula; whether music, drama and dance education should be given an equal emphasis compared to more mainstream science and humanities subjects. In particular some of the key issues raised were related to the attention skills and processes of memory retrieval that is unique to those who appreciate art, and can be put to use in other areas of academics as well.

The study led by Dr Michael Gazzaniga (famous for his work on split-brain research) of the University of California at Santa Barbara utilized brain scanning and behavioral studies to examine a number of questions in this regard. An interest in the arts has been found to lead to high levels of attention that improves performance in many other areas. In particular music training leads to memory enhancement in several unrelated areas too. A link has been found in children between music training and ability in geometrical representation of concepts and ideas, apart from development of neural pathways for phonological awareness. Phonologically aware children have been shown to develop superior learning skills and language skills.

On the other hand, learning to dance is also distinctly advantageous as it leads to a better capacity for learning complex patterns of behavior. The other important find in this study, involving seven universities, was the presence of candidate genes that are responsible for our individual differences in affinity for art. In adults dopamine-related genes have been found to be associated with an interest in the aesthetics and “open” personalities, as artists often are.

It would appear then that art is a deeply neurological phenomenon — much more than most of us think.


Michael S. Gazzaniga. Learning, Arts, and the Brain. The Dana Consortium Report. 2008.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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