Connected to everything else: More neuroscience and the 'gifted brain'

By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department

In our last outing, we explored elementary elements of neurobiology as they pertained directly to teaching and learning — and perchance more importantly, our engagement in the digital, performing and visual arts. One rather vital element that we neglected to mention is that learning experiences are equal parts cognitive and affective. That is to say that emotion is critical to learning in that our most primitive survival mechanisms (one might refer to it as ‘fight or flight’) are activated and that our brains guide our bodies in paying laser-like attention to what we are exposed. Learning with emotion is the learning that sticks. We are hardwired as a species to ignore those things not fundamental to survival — we dismiss 99 percent of new information that is not reinforced or made redundant over time. Consider the last time you learned something that ‘stuck.’ Was there emotion involved?

Without going too far afield, let us consider the ‘gifted brain’ and those socio-affective characteristics we frequently associate with giftedness and talent. In this context, we need not distinguish between types of giftedness. For example, in the aggregate, research suggests that the gifted:

  • Need holistic metacognitive training as well as organizational/time management skills

  • Tend to be multimodal, multisensory learners

  • Tend to be great integrators of information

  • Possess tremendous analytical skills

  • Are frequently bored and feel unchallenged

  • Are naturally drawn to aesthetics

  • Seek out the tacit, tangible, ‘real world’ applications

  • Enjoy hypotheses (what ifs) and role playing

  • Intuitively seek multisensory patterns to make sense of the world

Now let us consider the ways in which meaningful and continued progressive immersion in the arts might support brain-compatible learning, especially in the development and maintenance of those general metacognitive skill sets called ‘sound habits of mind.’ For example, meta-analyses of research in the arts as applied to education suggest that the arts in general:

  • Enhance retention and persistence (attendance)

  • Provide ‘safe’ environments for English Learners—also facilitate multimodal association of concepts and vocabulary

  • Provide unique opportunities for flexible grouping, tiering and differentiated instruction (ability, learning style and interest)

  • Provide opportunities to move from concrete (manipulation) to application and abstraction

  • Offer occasion for socially constructed learning that connects to the ‘real world’ –answers the question ‘when will I ever use this again’

  • Offer challenges to students at all levels—students can find their own levels, automatically (self-differentiation)

  • Facilitate the measure longitudinal progress across disciplines, including summative closure events

  • Provide unique opportunities to involve parents in a very positive way

As you can see, we are beginning to build a rather compelling case for meaningful inclusion of the arts within and across the curriculum and the ability spectrum. In our next installments, we will segment the arts into component disciplines and recommend a sequence of experiences so that the study of the arts is neither fractured nor desultory.

For any questions about this article or our series on the arts in education, please contact Morgan Appel directly at

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