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Heady Stuff - Building Better Brains Through the Arts

by Heather Miller

"Continue . . . with the brain lecture. Definitely the most HEADY thing we've done all year." This from a student in response to my request to indicate things I should stop, start and continue doing in our visual arts pre-service course at York University. How the brain learns has continued to fascinate me for the past twenty-five years. The research and its application to teaching and learning have important implications for education in general, and the arts in particular.

The human brain is a remarkable organ containing only 2% of body weight yet using 20% of the body's energy. It is constantly reshaping itself as it responds to stimuli, or lack of it, in the environment. We each have, in effect, a designer brain. One we have created to perfectly match what we do, and how we do it. "More than any other organ, the brain can be shaped by stimulation and use, by disease and trauma, by dull routine and disuse into a centre of thought, sensation, and regulation most appropriate for a given individual's life." (Diamond 1998) An important finding in the current research is the belief that the brain continues to grow and reshape itself well into old age. "The dendrites, the magic trees of the cerebral cortex, retain their ability to grow and branch, and it is this lifetime growing potential that enables us to continue learning and adapting. However, childhood is a particularly crucial time for the brain because of the neural sculpting that goes on; for many of our abilities, tendencies, talents, and reactions, those that get "hardwired" in childhood become the collective mental platform upon which we stand and grow for the rest of our lives." (Diamond 1998) As teachers, we have an awesome responsibility to consider how brain research might shape our practice.

Ours is a triune brain, meaning it has three separate and distinct parts that are highly interactive. The ancient part of the brain, the BRAIN STEM, is about the size of the index finger, and regulates survival functions. The mid-brain, known by some researchers as the LIMBIC SYSTEM, is the emotional centre of the brain. The most recently evolved, outer, deeply folded layer of the brain is the CORTEX. This is the part of the brain that processes space and time. It deals with long-term factual memories and solving problems relevant to the external world. It is the thinking part of the brain. The human brain has the largest area of uncommitted cortex of any other species. This means that humans have exceptional flexibility for learning. Although the brain is only about the size of a grapefruit it makes up a critical portion of the nervous system. There are nearly a million kilometers of nerve fibres connecting its nerve cells. The brain uses neurons, 100 billion of them in the average adult, to think and learn. Neurons are made up of a cell body, dendrites and axons. ". . . a normal functioning neuron is continuously firing, integrating, and generating information; it's a virtual hotbed of activity. " (Jensen 1998) Information travels down the axon (think of a telephone wire) to its button like ending and crosses a small gap or synapse between itself and the dendrites of the receiving cell. If the information is interesting enough to the receiving cell, its dendrites pass it along to its body and into its axon. It can then continue the process to another synaptic junction where another transmission of information can take place. "The exciting implication for the story of brain enrichment is that almost all of the close-contact points (synapses) on dendrites occur at little thorn like protrusions called spines. And as University of California researchers (including Diamond and group) have found, these dendritic spines themselves grow, change shape, or shrink as an animal experiences the world." (Diamond 1998)

Scientists are not sure exactly how the brain rewires itself to learn, but they do know what happens. A stimulus, either internal or external, activates a response in the brain. The stimulus is sorted and processed at several levels and the pieces are put into place so that the memory can be easily activated. "Learning is a critical function of neurons that cannot be accomplished individually - it requires groups of neurons. "(Greenfield 1995) As neural pathways become more efficient, a fatty substance called myelin forms around the axon. Myelin appears to reduce interference from nearby impulses thereby increasing efficiency in the brain. Because our brain adapts quickly to rewire itself as it learns, practicing new learnings - doing what we already know - uses less of the brain and doing something new - stimulation - uses more. "When we say cells "connect" with other cells, we really mean that they are in such close proximity that the synapse is easily, and almost effortlessly, "used" over and over again. New synapses usually appear after learning. (Jensen 1998) Intelligence is the end result of learning. A better, smarter brain results from growing more dendrites and synaptic connections and not losing existing ones. Our challenge as educators is to ensure our students have lots of opportunities to grow dendrites through such things as exploring new ideas, finding many different solutions to the same problem, and activating creative insights. This, of course, is the essence of a solid arts program.

Current brain research challenges many existing ideas. For instance, it used to be thought that the brain was unchangeable, that it was "hard-wired" so to speak. We now know that positive, and negative, environments can actually produce physical changes in the brain. "Today, consensus tells us that heredity provides about 30 to 60 percent of our brain's wiring, and 40 to 70 percent is the environmental impact." (Jensen 1998) As educators our influence is felt in the overall quality of the learning environment we provide for our students. Research by Dr. Diamond showing how enrichment changed rats' brains is supported by neuroscientist, Bob Jacob's work on humans. "Frequent new learning experiences and challenges were critical to brain growth. The brains of graduate students who were "coasting" through school had fewer connections than those who challenged themselves daily." (Jensen 1998)

Three vital characteristics of an enriched environment follow.

The environment must be stress free. Threat and stress make new learning virtually impossible. When a stimulus enters the brain it goes to the limbic system for sorting. There, it will be processed either by the hippocampus, which will send it to the cortex where thinking occurs, or by the amygdala which will send it to the cerebellum where an automatic, instinctive response occurs. "When the learner feels relaxed and in control, the cortex is fully functional, and thus higher-level, more meaningful learning is possible. When the learner feels out of control of the learning process, he/she "downshifts" (Caine and Caine 1991) from cortical locale learning to the limbic system's taxon, or rote learning. In this condition, the cortex essentially shuts down. The only learning possible involves rote memorization or learning of simple skills, and the only creativity or problem solving possible is that which is based on habits, instincts, or other already learned routinized behaviours."(Howard 2000) Arts education that emphasizes process as well as product provides students with more control over their learning. Students are constantly in the process of making connections in a creative and meaningful way. In many cases the very act of working with materials, movement and music focuses and centres learners, acting as a stress release.

The environment must stimulate the learner with open ended challenges. Challenges should be difficult enough to be interesting, and not so difficult as to create anxiety. When the optimal level of challenge is achieved, a state of flow is reached. (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) In this state students are intrinsically motivated and will persevere to complete tasks for the pure joy of learning. The arts are intensely challenging requiring among other things, visual processing, analytical thinking, question finding, hypotheses forming/testing, and verbal reasoning. They encourage students to make connections among such things as philosophies, social themes, formal structures, personal insights and historical patterns. "The arts lay the foundation for later academic and career success. A strong art foundation builds creativity, concentration, problem solving, self-efficacy, coordination, and values attention and self-discipline." (Jensen 1998) An arts education that challenges students to find new and innovative solutions to complex problems grows dendrites.

The environment must provide ongoing feedback. The brain is self-referencing, constantly checking what to do next based on what it has just done. Feedback, when it is specific, keeps the learner on the right track. Especially when it is immediate, feedback reduces uncertainty, and provides the learner with a sense of direction and the feeling that he/she is more capable of success. Cooperative groups provide an excellent venue for feedback because the members of the group feel valued and safe, and verbal responses are coupled with body language increasing the impact of the response. If the performance can be altered once feedback has been received, the brain learns more quickly. Many of the arts processes are group oriented -- the band, choir, art show, plays, and demonstrations. Working in this way increases the group dynamic and bond, meaning that students have ample references for positive, specific feedback as they learn. Because the whole depends on each of the parts, feedback is ongoing and immediate . . . . . the misplayed note, the not quite right movement, the colour that just doesn't work, and students are able to immediately act on the suggestions.

A great deal of research continues to reveal new and exciting things about how the brain learns. As important as this information is, caution must be exercised when deciding how to proceed. Relative to what will be found, only the tiniest amount of information is known. Cognitive neuroscientists warn educators to be careful about what they think they know. New understandings continue to unfold. For instance, we know that the brain has two hemispheres that are connected by the corpus callosum, bundles of nerve fibres that allow each side of the brain to exchange information fairly freely. It was once believed that music and arts are completely right-brained activities, but this idea is now outdated. MRI scans of the brain engaged in listening to music, for instance, show the entire brain lighting up. My feeling is to go with professional judgment and experience. What do you observe in your classroom that makes a critical difference in the way children learn? How does this connect with what the brain scientists tell us? Research suggests that "a music and arts education has positive measurable and lasting academic and social benefits. In fact, considerable evidence suggests a broad-based music and arts education should be required for every student in the country." (Jensen 1998) This makes sense to me because of my experience as a teacher when I observed the power of the arts to transform learning for my students, and again as a principal in an elementary school where we were teaching through the arts. For a period of four years I tracked student academic achievement, behaviour, staff morale, and parent satisfaction. Each year I saw measurable improvement. My experiences connect with the findings of others. ". . . arts education facilitates language development, enhances creativity, boosts reading readiness, helps social development, assists general intellectual achievement and fosters positive attitudes towards school. (Hanshumacher 1980) Brain research confirms what I have observed throughout my career. The arts contribute significantly to school success. They are an essential part of learning.

Dr. Robert Sylwester in his video, "On Social Interaction and Brain Development", asks us to consider how we will respond when, thirty years from now, people ask what it was like to be a teacher at the forefront of the important new brain research? What will you say?

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Diamond, M. and J. Hopson. Magic Trees of the Mind. New York: Dutton Books, Penguin-Putnam Group, 1998

Caine, R.N., and G. Caine. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley, 1994

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow. New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 1990

Greenfield, S. Journey to the Centres of the Mind. New York: W. H. Freeman Company, 1995

Hanshumacher, J. The Effects of Arts Education on Intellectual and Social Development: A Review of Selected Research. Bulletin of the Council for research in Music Education 61, 2: 10-28, 1980

Howard, Pierce J. The Owner's Manual for The Brain. Atlanta, Austin: Bard Press, 2000

Jensen, Eric. Arts with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 2001

Jensen, Eric. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 1998

Perkins, David N. The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art. Santa Monica, California: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1994

Sylwester, Robert. Robert Sylwester on Social Interaction and Brain Development: Windows to the Mind Volume 1. Tucson, Arizona: Zephyr Press, 1997

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