Connected to everything else: The practical neuroscience of the Arts in education

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

From the minute we pried open a tube of Tinkertoys or extracted our first crayons from the box of 64, we intuited that the arts were something special. Not solely from the standpoint of the passive observer, but from the perspective of the active participant. As a species organically drawn to the aesthetic, we are able to find meaning and beauty in our interaction with the arts. As pupils, we longed for those times in which we might express ourselves creatively, be it on canvas or on cardboard used as a makeshift floor for breakdancing.

Ironically, in California, a state once driven economically by innovation in design and aerospace, as well as a thriving entertainment industry, arts have fallen by the wayside result of budgetary retrenchment and almost sole emphasis on drill and kill, language arts and mathematics. Although the Common Core may offer some respite, we remain somewhat ill prepared to resurrect them in total.

Yet a burgeoning literature offers that the arts have significant impacts within and across disciplines and what arts-in-education call ‘sound habits of mind’ — those distinctly metacognitive qualities that enhance the processes associated with learning and are tightly bound to elements of Bloom’s taxonomy and Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences. As we will see, the arts are an important catalyst for what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ — an intense, almost Zen-like state of complete immersion in activity or set of activities. They are a breeding ground for creativity and innovation and a better understanding of the human condition.

For many years, researchers sought to address the theory of ‘transference’ — that is, that arts knowledge does not transfer in a linear way to other disciplines. A good mathematician makes for a good musician, for example. Although interesting correlations did appear, many intervening independent variables were present, confounding claims of causation. In other words, one might be a talented musician — and mathematics incorporates many similar principles and ideas — and there are relationships manifest between the two. It does not come to mean, however, that a brilliant musician is mathematically inclined — at least statistically.

These arguments also irked the ars gratia ars crowd no end—the sentiment being that the arts were not to be judged solely in the context of usefulness to other disciplines, but were valuable in and of themselves.

So why do the arts work? Before we move ahead with deliberate speed, consider the following elementary neuroscience:

  • The brain learns through multiple senses and modalities

  • The brain thrives on process and making sense of new information

  • The brain works in context when processing new information

  • The brain uses patterns to make sense of information

  • The brain uses scaffolding to process new information

  • Neuroplasticity: the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences

  • Physiologically, like a coin making an impression in clay — the clay must change to hold the impression of the coin

  • Consider the old saw ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a week’ The brain works in a very similar way: it thrives on making sense of process!

  • Process reinvigorates the brain through re-establishing neural networks

Caine and Caine (1997) offer:

  • The brain is a complex adaptive system.

  • The brain is a social brain.

  • The search for meaning is innate.

  • The search for meaning occurs through patterning.

  • Emotions are critical to patterning.

  • Every brain simultaneously perceives and creates parts and wholes.

  • Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral attention.

  • Learning always involves conscious and unconscious processes.

  • We have at least two ways of organizing memory.

  • Learning is developmental.

  • Complex learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

  • Every brain is uniquely organized.

In our next installment, we will examine the ways in which the arts meaningfully align with these elements of practical neuroscience and socio-affective concerns. We will explore the ‘gifted brain’ and its relationship to the arts generally and by artistic discipline. Stay tuned for more!

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

Posted: 2/18/2014 12:00:00 AM with 0 comments
Filed under: Arts, Brain, Dance, Drawing, Education-2, Music, Painting, Performing-arts, Visual-arts

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