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November 1998 | Volume 56 | Number 3
How the Brain Learns
From fine-tuning muscular systems to integrating emotion and logic, the arts have important biological value. For their unique contributions to brain development, the arts must take center stage in schools.
George Bernard Shaw suggested that we use a mirror to see our face and the arts to see our soul. Although our physical survival doesn't seem to depend on this aesthetic search for our soul, the visual, aural, and movement arts have long been prominent in human life. Because our visual, auditory, and motor systems are essential to cognition, it's probable that the arts emerged to help develop and maintain them.
Because the arts can be expensive, their presence throughout human history reflects their importance. Creating the long strings of beads discovered in ancient sites required many hours of personal effort (Allman, 1996), and buying today's equally nonfunctional string of pearls takes the income from many working hours. The energy and cost are similarly high for the choreography and improvisation of dance—from square dancing to ballet, figure skating to hockey, couple dancing to tennis. The visual, aural, and movement arts are expensive, and we pay with little complaint.
What is odd, then, are moves to reduce or eliminate funding for school arts programs (and in this discussion, I'm including physical education and sports within the broad category of the arts). Why would a culture that values aesthetics and peak performance in the arts cut educational programs that prepare the next generation of artists and athletes?
Part of the explanation may lie in the current push for increased school efficiency and economy. Good arts programs are not efficient. They're difficult to evaluate in an era concerned with measurable standards. Educators have therefore had to continually justify arts programs, but not algebra or spelling. This justification tends to focus heavily on public performance (concerts, plays, sports, and art shows) as if that's all that the arts are about. Further, it has led to dubious cause-and-effect claims that the arts improve scores in other curricular areas. It's a real stretch to imagine that the arts emerged aeons ago to enhance spelling and algebra. The arts, language, and mathematics have important biological values in themselves, beyond their marvelous interactive properties. Must math also then enhance music to remain in the curriculum?
Evidence from the brain sciences and evolutionary psychology increasingly suggests that the arts (along with such functions as language and math) play an important role in brain development and maintenance—so it's a serious matter for schools to deny children direct curricular access to the arts.
The arts are highly integrative, involving many elements of human life. Let's focus on two key elements: (1) the heightened motor skills that we call performance and (2) the heightened appreciation of our sensory-motor capabilities that we call aesthetics. Humans have a seemingly innate desire to go beyond the mundane, and to do it with style and grace. The discussion below focuses on four emerging themes that help provide biological support for school arts programs that build a basic background in the arts for all students (such as movement skills in physical education and singing in music) and beginning specialization for those whose interests and abilities warrant it (such as in sports and orchestra).
Why do we have a brain? Plants seem to do fine without one; many trees far outlive us. We have a brain because we have muscle systems that allow us to move toward opportunities and away from danger. Plants must take whatever comes along, including predators that nibble leaves and commit other indignities. So why would an immobile tree even want a sensory system that could recognize an approaching logger when it is incapable of fleeing the impending assault?
Or consider the sea squirt, which initially swims about until it permanently attaches to a rock or coral. It then begins the rest of its immobile life by eating its now superfluous brain.
Because we humans are mobile throughout life, we need an intelligent cognitive system that can transform sensory input and imagination into appropriate motor output—to decide whether to move or to stay. Mobility is central to much that's human—whether the movement of information is physical or mental. We can move and talk. Trees can't. Misguided teachers who constantly tell their students to sit down and be quiet imply a preference for working with a grove of trees, not a classroom of students.
Although a cognitive decision to move may involve billions of neurons, only about a half-million motor neurons activate the muscle groups that make up almost half our body's weight. Our jointed motor system, with its complex brain-muscle connections, provides our brain with a remarkably effective external mechanism for action. It comprises the toe/foot/leg system that's about half our body's length, the finger/hand/arm system that extends our reach about two feet beyond our body, a flexible neck that increases the geographic range of our head's sensory receptors, and a remarkable mouth that begins digestion and also communicates through both sound and expressive facial movements.
Our sensitive sensory system and finely controlled movements are also central to the visual, aural, and movement arts, whether it's the fine-motor control of a painter, the practiced pizzicato of a violinist, or the choreographed pick-and-roll of an NBA team.
Consider the cultural significance of virtuosity in our three bottom-to-top motor systems (the movers, the handlers, and the talkers): the legs of skaters, runners, and dancers; the expressive hands of pianists, artists, and mimes; the mouth of speakers, singers, and horn players. Our culture values them all because they so celebrate what are otherwise simple, ordinary movements. How can one promote a curriculum that reduces the acceptable movement of this magnificent appendage system to one hand laboriously writing words on a playing field the size of a sheet of typing paper? It's bizarre.
Some argue that schools aren't in the business of developing such skills at the virtuoso level, that basic motor skills should suffice. OK, but I wonder why these same people relentlessly press for (1) higher performance standards in curricular areas whose skill component is being displaced by computer technology and (2) the simultaneous reduction of programs that move students from basic to advanced levels in arts areas that are so central to the human spirit.
Developing smoothly controlled muscular systems is a priority of childhood and adolescence. Suckling is almost the first mobile act of an infant, followed by the brain-outward maturation of the arm and leg systems—eating before grasping before walking. Because mobility is a central human characteristic, these innate systems must develop early at the survival level without formal instruction or even mimicry (blind children master walking without ever having observed it). This development includes specific, currently ill-understood periods during which various specialized brain systems develop (such as walking at about age 1, talking at about age 2).
Children denied the opportunity to develop a survival skill that they would normally master with ease during its window of opportunity may not recover from the deprivation. A good example is the tragic case of Genie. By the time she was discovered at 13, her disturbed parents had almost totally deprived her of normal language development. Competent therapists who tried to undo the damage were only marginally successful (Rymer, 1993).
Most folks realize that the neural systems that process language must be stimulated through conversation to master the local language, and we correctly insist that schools focus on the key elements. Within the same student brain, however, is another set of neural systems that processes musical forms distinct from language. Song uses such elements as tone, melody, harmony, and rhythm to insert important emotional overtones into a now slowed-down verbal message. Our brain's language and music systems both must be developmentally stimulated—and especially those subsystems that regulate highly controlled motor activity (such as speaking, singing, writing, and playing musical instruments).
Both language and music permeate our environment. How can anyone justify a curriculum that seeks to develop language but not musical capabilities? Is spelling really biologically more important than melody, when both express culturally significant sequential information? Are our innate music networks something like unwanted tonsils or appendix tissue to be removed rather than to be understood and enhanced? How can anyone have such a limited view of our brain and the curriculum? Recall the plight of Genie. How many musically limited students are now emerging from school, having had practically no competent professional development of their innate musical ability—or for that matter, of their spatial processing centers that are so central to the visual and movement arts?
We're born into a complex world with an immature brain that is one-third its adult size. Because we can live in a wide variety of environments, our sensory-motor development beyond our innate survival needs tends to focus on the specific environmental demands that each brain confronts.
Highly specialized and coordinated movement patterns, such as those used in calligraphy, violin playing, and tap dancing, must thus be taught, and mastery is typically difficult. The importance of the early acquisition of such skills was demonstrated in a recent study of right-handed violinists (Elbert, Pantex, Wienbruch, Rockstroh, & Taub, 1995). Separate, specific brain areas control right-hand and left-hand finger movements. Violinists who began lessons before the age of 12 developed important differences in the size and complexity of these motor areas, which didn't develop in nonviolinists (who had little need for left-hand digital dexterity) or even in good violinists who began later.
Michael Jordan, a basketball superstar, is another interesting example (Klawans, 1996). At 31, he decided to switch to baseball. With all his athletic ability and resolve, he didn't do nearly as well as he had hoped. Throwing a basketball through a hoop requires sensory-motor skills different from those needed to hit a baseball approaching at 90 miles an hour. Even major-league pitchers are not recycled into hitters when their pitching abilities wane.
Survival-level cognitive and motor skills are universal and innate. Early instruction and effort can get us beyond mere survival levels into the normal limits of human capability. Virtuoso-level abilities are highly specific and require the commitment of early and extensive training. Many young people exhibit this skill-specific commitment when they continually practice specialized skills. Call it play if you will, but Jean Piaget suggested that play is the serious business of childhood.
Scientists have recently been exploring fluctuations in the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin inhibits quick motor responses and thereby enhances relaxation and the calm assurance that leads to smoothly controlled and coordinated movements. Because effective movement is so central to human life, it's not surprising that serotonin fluctuations help regulate our level of self-esteem and our position in movement-related social hierarchies. Our own awareness of our increased motor skills and the positive feedback of others play key roles. Most people periodically experience bursts of self-esteem—if only after making a neat turn on the dance floor.
Elevated serotonin levels are associated with high self-esteem and social status, and reduced serotonin levels, with low self-esteem and social status. In motor terms, low serotonin levels cause the irritability that leads to impulsive, uncontrolled, reckless, aggressive, violent, and suicidal behavior (Sylwester, 1997).
This knowledge about serotonin suggests that good school arts and physical education programs can play an important role in developing the fine-motor control that allows youngsters to discover how remarkable the human body is—whether it's drawing a picture with tightly controlled movements or dancing with abandon. Human mobility isn't just about getting from here to there. It's doing it with style and grace. The arts are often the celebration of the ordinary, but we tend to celebrate artists, musicians, dancers, and athletes whose movement patterns are extraordinary.
Our culture spends heavily to develop and appreciate virtuosity in aesthetic movement patterns—sports, concerts, theater, dance. Scientists now know that the initial instruction for many such abilities must begin early, and we can argue that it shouldn't depend entirely on parental ability to finance private lessons if our entire culture benefits from the abilities.
But we can run only so fast and jump only so high. Some people devote years of their youth trying to jump an inch higher than anyone else has ever jumped. Others are content to use a ladder. Technologies are thus another way to go beyond normal human limitations—whether it's using a calculator to compute, a phone book to extend memory, a drum to increase the sound of chest beating, or skates to create an art form out of slipping on ice.
Some people move artistically and others just watch other people move. People who don't sing attend concerts; people who don't play attend sporting events; people who don't paint purchase paintings. One marvelous aspect of the arts is that they cognitively stimulate both those who do them and those who observe others do them. The arts are a total win-win situation. The doers and the observers both discover something about the further reaches of being human. Art appreciation (or aesthetics) is thus an important element of an arts education.
The arts may provide another important cognitive service, however. We have multiple neural systems to process emotion and intelligence, and some may infrequently activate in real life. The arts (and probably our dreams) help maintain the strength of such systems by activating them in stimulating pretend situations during periods when real life doesn't challenge them. Use it or lose it is a cognitive reality for neural systems tuned to the challenges of the immediate environment.
For example, fear is a key alerting emotion (with a distinct neural system) that may infrequently activate in real life. But the arts frequently activate it. Is the universal childhood attraction to fearful fairy tales and other scary stories and games related to an unconscious need to develop our fear-system responses in playful nonthreatening situations so that the system will function effectively in real-life threatening situations? Consider other basic emotions: anticipation, surprise, joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, anger. The arts embrace them all—whether it's the joyful emotional release of a clown's comedy, the disgust of war elicited by Picasso's Guernica, the exciting anticipation of the unknown ending of a close sporting event, or the sudden alertness brought about by the crescendo bars of Haydn's Surprise Symphony.
The situation is similar with our multiple intelligences systems. The arts develop and rehearse many of these—a pianist simultaneously activates bodily-kinesthetic, musical, and intrapersonal systems; children playing a team game simultaneously activate just about all systems. Or consider the task that young children face when learning the completely arbitrary 26-letter sequence of the English alphabet. Most of us have trouble remembering the 10-digit sequence of an area code and phone number. Children use a simple melody to easily master an abstract 26-unit sequence, ending the song with a request that the adults be impressed. We truly are. Try it without musical support.
Emotion is an unconscious body and brain system that alerts us to dangers and opportunities. It activates our powerful, multifaceted attention system in order to organize the myriad conscious and unconscious rational systems that our brain uses to solve the current challenge. Emotion and attention thus become the pathways into all rational cognitive behavior. Consider the cognitive plight of those with disorders of their emotion and attention pathways—ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, mental retardation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia.
Emotion and attention are thus critically important brain systems that must be nurtured beyond their innate initial survival levels into the limits of human capability. They're the unconscious doorway into a cortical room abuzz with conscious conversation and problem solving. Unfortunately, schools currently tend to value the conscious conversation and solutions, not the unconscious doorway to the solutions (Goleman, 1995). We can access our rational/logical thoughts through easily measured language, but our unconscious emotion/attention only through difficult-to-measure, nonverbal body states and feelings—our conscious awareness of unconscious emotions (LeDoux, 1996).
Emotion and attention (which are central to all activity in the arts) often lead us to important rational behaviors that wouldn't have emerged if we hadn't walked through that arts-enhanced doorway. Emotion drives attention, and attention drives learning, problem solving, behavior, and just about everything else.
It's probably appropriate that emotion, attention, and their arts-handmaiden don't lend themselves to the easily measurable efficiency of rational thought. One can argue for the biological value of an alerting/focusing system that can rapidly size up and respond to the flow of things, untrammeled by conscious factual detail, verbal categorization, and precise evaluation. The regrets that follow precipitous decisions are preferable to death from delay. This may be why emotionally improvised movements are such a stimulating element of the arts—whether it's the broken field run of a football halfback, the intricate interplay of a jazz trio, or the flow of an abstract painting.
Emotion, attention, and the arts aren't about the security of a correct answer, but rather about a jack-of-all-trades emotional brain that has quick, multiple, inventive solutions to most problems. Even when a part of the response pattern is set, improvisation can occur within the response. Ten pianists playing the same sonata will play it 10 different ways.
To argue for the importance of emotion and attention in cognition doesn't suggest that reason and logic are unimportant. Reason and logic consciously move us toward an intelligent, learned response that's typically our first choice when we confront the problem again. Our brain thus developed two separate but integrated systems, and the transcendent movement patterns that characterize the arts often provide the integration between emotion/attention and reason/logic. Only the mindless would suggest that education can function with one system but not with the other. Only the unimaginative would suggest that both systems must be judged by the same criteria of economy, efficiency, and objective measurability.
This discussion of the arts began with the importance of motion, and it ends with the importance of emotion. Both are central to the arts and to life. They're two inseparable sides of a very valuable biological coin that each generation must invest in its young. School arts programs are a worthy investment of that coin.
Allman, W. (1996, May 20). The dawn of creativity. U.S. News and World Report, 53–58.
Elbert, T., Pantex, C., Wienbruch, C., Rockstroh, B., & Taub, E. (1995). Increased cortical representations of the fingers of the left hand in string players. Science, 270, 305–306.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than I.Q. New York: Basic Books.
Klawans, H. L. (1996). Why Michael couldn't hit: And other tales of the neurology of sports. New York: Freeman.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Rymer, R. (1993). Genie: An abused child's flight from silence. New York: HarperCollins.
Sylwester, R. (1997). The neurobiology of self-esteem and aggression. Educational Leadership, 54(5), 75–79.
Robert Sylwester is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403-5267 (e-mail:
Copyright © 1998 by
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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