Posts tagged: brain development

Music and the Mind

By , March 11, 2008 8:29 pm

Since music was our Unplugged Project theme for last week, this seems to be a very appropriate time to talk about an interesting study that was just released by the Dana Foundation. The report shows a correlation between music training (any performance art training, in fact) and higher academic performance.

This has been demonstrated before, but the Dana study brought together cognitive scientists from seven US universities to try to figure out more precisely how and why this correlation exists. According to the Dana Foundation website, this study “…brings us closer to answering the question: Are smart people drawn to the arts or does arts training make people smarter?”

I don’t know how it was when you were in high school, but when I was there, those of us “nerds” in the band and orchestra did seem to be the kids who performed better in school than those who were not involved in music. I always assumed that most children who were in music perhaps had more involved parents, and that was the explanation. Or maybe “smarter” kids were somehow more drawn to music. But now it seems that there might actually also be some concrete scientific reasons for the “smart band kid” stereotype!

Here is a brief summation of the report’s findings (directly quoted from the website’s study summary page):

Here is a summary of what the group has learned:

1. An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.

2. Genetic studies have begun to yield candidate genes that may help explain individual differences in interest in the arts.

3. Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.

4. In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.

5. Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.

6. Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.

7. Adult self-reported interest in aesthetics is related to a temperamental factor of openness, which in turn is influenced by dopamine-related genes.

8. Learning to dance by effective observation is closely related to learning by physical practice, both in the level of achievement and also the neural substrates that support the organization of complex actions. Effective observational learning may transfer to other cognitive skills.

The Foundation hopes to be able to continue and expand the study to really identify the precise biological brain mechanisms at work in the positive effects on the brain of artistic training.

Although I am opposed to the overscheduling of children that is so common these days, my one “mandatory” extra-curricular activity has always been learning a musical instrument. This study furthers my resolve to have my children learn an instrument. I feel that musical training has had an extremely positive effect on my life, and I want to pass that gift along to my children.

Furthermore, the fact that music and arts training seems to be so beneficial for overall brain development, makes it even more tragic that schools are cutting back on such programs.


+ About the study: Effects of Instrumental Music Training on Brain and Cognitive Development in Young Children: A Longitudinal Study

+ Summary of findings: Arts and Cognition: Findings Hint at Relationships (Summary)

+ Research Consortium Finds New Evidence Linking Arts and Learning, article by Brenda Patoine – A really interesting summary of the study and what it means!

+ MSNBC Video Report: Better Minds Through Music (Length 2:16) – This very brief news report only covers the work of one scientist involved in the study, Dr. Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard, who found a correlation between musical training and an enhanced abilities in geometric reasoning.

+ Follow-up comments from the public to the MSNBC report

+ Download the full PDF version of study here.

“Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control”

By , February 27, 2008 9:01 pm

Tomorrow morning (February 28, 2008) on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, a story will air that is a natural extension of the NPR piece that I wrote about on February 21st in my post: Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function. According to the February 21st piece, children today no longer engage in imaginative, creative play. Unfortunately it turns out that imaginative play is essential for the formation of self-control and self-regulation. These are obviously very important skills in life and are a more accurate predictor of success in school than is IQ.

Tomorrow’s NPR story, Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, describes a preschool program based on the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, entitled “Tools of the Mind” (currently being implemented in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon). The program was developed by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong of the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

According to the description of the program on the Metropolitan State College of Denver website, Lev Vygotsky believed that

… until children learn to use mental tools, their learning is largely controlled by the environment: they attend only to the things that are the brightest or loudest and they can remember something only if has been repeated many times. AFTER children master mental tools, they can become in charge of their own learning by attending and remembering in an intentional and purposeful way. Similar to how using mental tools transforms children’s cognitive behaviors, they can also transform their physical, social and emotional behaviors. From being “slaves to the environment,” children become “masters of their own behavior.” As children are taught and practice an increasing number of various mental tools, they transform not only their external behaviors, but also their minds, leading to the emergence of higher mental functions.

Alix Spiegel’s NPR report describes a visit to the Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center in Bridgeton, N.J. where the Tools of the Mind program is being implemented for preschoolers. The point of the Tools of the Mind program is to intensively build “executive function” (ie. “self-regulation”) skills. Please read the NPR transcript for a detailed description of the activities observed at the center. It is quite interesting.

Adele Diamond, executive function researcher and professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, has observed and studied the Tools of the Mind program (she is in no way affiliated with the program). Here is her description of the first time she observed a Tools of the Mind class:

“I was totally blown away. The kids were sitting together working quietly. It was like a second-grade classroom instead of a preschool classroom. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ms. Diamond conducted a study following 147 preschoolers for two years. Half the children were in enrolled in a Tools of the Mind class, the other half were enrolled in a regular preschool curriculum. After two years, the children were all given an executive function assessment. The results? The regular school kids performed roughly “at chance” while the Tools kids did much better (about 85% correct).

Could reduced executive function skills be a contributing factor to the rising number of kids diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)? Ms. Diamond and a few other researchers think so. Professor Diamond says:

“I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early.”

This is really fascinating to me, but sad. How could today’s children have lost all their natural and apparently important imaginative play behavior? Why do we have to have programs like Tools of the Mind to help these children self-regulate?

Is it because today’s kids spend much of their free time watching TV, playing video games and taking formal, adult-lead instruction for sports or other extra-curricular, “enrichment” activities? That’s what executive function researchers seem to think.


Be sure to listen to the story tomorrow morning (February 28) on NPR’s Morning Edition, or check the transcript page for a link to the audio version.


Metropolitan State College of Denver

Tools of the Mind Program

Lev Vygotsky


Photo courtesy of and photographer tangle_eye.

Imaginative Play and Cognitive Function

By , February 21, 2008 3:31 pm


On NPR’s Morning Edition this morning was a VERY interesting story (“Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills“) about how children’s play has changed in the last century. Instead of engaging in self-directed, imaginative, improvised play, play has become centered around toys and the latest movie or TV show: “Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch” they play “Star Wars with a toy light saber.”

Commercialization is only partly to blame, as child safety has become more of a concern in recent years. Parents are now more reluctant to let their children run loose around the neighborhood. They enroll kids in structured, adult-lead activities.

This change in play-habits has actually changed children’s brains according to researchers. Imaginative play helps kids develop what is known as “executive function,” which is a cognitive skill necessary for self-regulation (controlling emotions and behavior, resisting impulses, and exercising self-control and discipline).

Read this interesting excerpt from the NPR piece:

We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at the National Institute for Early Education Research says, the results were very different.

“Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

According to executive function researcher, Laura Berk: “Self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain.” In fact, good executive function is a more reliable predictor of success in school than IQ. Poor executive function leads to high dropout rates, drug use, and crime. Of course there must be a middle ground here, but the better a child’s ability to self-regulate, the better they will perform in school, and in life.

So here is yet another reason to turn off the TV, ignore the terrible whines, agonizing howls of boredom and claims of inhumane parental treatment and see what happens. They just might surprise you with the games they come up with on their own. And…they will be improving their executive function skills!

I urge you to listen to this fascinating NPR piece (7 min 50 sec), or at least read the online transcript.

+ Some suggestions for activities that promote self-regulation:

(from researchers Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University, found on the transcript page of the NPR website):

– Play “Simon Says”

– Encourage “complex imaginative play” (child plans and acts out scenarios, invents own props, etc. Best if play lasts for several hours)

– Activities that require planning (the examples given are: games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking)

– Read storybooks with your children

– Encourage children to talk to themselves (“fosters concentration, effort, problem-solving, and task success”)

+ A related Unplug Your Kids post: Let Your Kids be Bored

(Photo (taken in Madagascar) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and photographer Harald Kreutzer.)

“Recreational Junk Food”

By , February 13, 2008 3:44 pm

CJ of Resources 4 Home-Education (a great blog by the way with lots of links to educational resources!) left me a comment today with a very interesting link. The link is to a Reuters article entitled: Psychologist Warns of Educational Television Myth. Thank you CJ!

Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman, author of Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives is waging a battle against so-called educational television for children, what he calls “recreational junk food.” According to Dr. Sigman, the brains of young children who are exposed to screen time (be it TV, computers or DVD/video) are physically developing in a less healthy way despite any actual learning that might occur as a result of this screen exposure.

He says: “There is a definite inverse relationship between time spent watching any kind of television or screen when you are young and your ability to read and concentrate when you are older.”

He believes that the sensory complexity of TV, video and computer games (rapidly changing images, colors, noises, etc.) is having a detrimental effect on the wiring of the child’s brain and is producing children with shorter attention spans. This claim is backed up by a study that I wrote about here: Children’s Behavioral Problems Linked to TV.

Dr. Sigman also says:

Studies of brain activity have shown that a child doing simple mental arithmetic with coloured counters or beans has greater blood flow to the brain than one engaged what may look like a far more complex computer game… It may well be that your child learns from the TV that a certain country is in Africa, but that may well also come at the cost of doing something to their attention span…(w)hereas if a parent is talking to their children about geography or nature, they can learn without that risk and will physically exercise their brains in the process.

Do Dr. Sigman’s kids watch TV? “My children have candy sometimes, and television is just like candy, it’s recreational junk food…(b)ut it’s a complete myth that children somehow inherently need TV — otherwise they would be born with a television built into their stomachs, just like the Tellytubbies”.

Yet again, the old adage “all things in moderation” seems to be good advice!

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