I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.
The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative? Or when it’s listening to music? Or looking at a painting? The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general? For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math. But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true. We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.
For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.
I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains? If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better? (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.) I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum. But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.