Arts education is one of the most important areas of child development, but arts supporters must justify its relevance to learning to maintain its share of shrinking budgets. The assumption by many is that because children enjoy art and music activities, they can’t possibly be useful to learning. In the past, there was little consistently reliable research to refute this argument, but advances in neuroscience are challenging this position.

What happens to the brain when we learn?

Scientists now know that learning causes physical changes within the brain, and these changes are the most deep-seated when emotion is involved. Chemical couriers called neurotransmitters allow communication between brain cells. There are many different chemical couriers, but the emotion chemicals, serotonin, adrenalin and dopamine, modify the synapses and this process is the basis for learning.

Everything we learn becomes part of our neural associations or pathways. In some cases, these neural changes do not occur unless emotion is involved, thus releasing the emotion chemicals. This fact is important in the context of the arts education argument. Involvement in art and music triggers emotion because creating something from nothing is an emotional exercise. The art creator feels emotion, as does the art consumer, thus changing the brain of both parties.

Practice also changes the brain. It deepens the neural pathways of an existing skill, and creates new pathways for a new skill which then becomes easy as the signals travel a well-worn path. Children are more likely to practice something fun, such as arts, and in doing so will generate emotion, effort and focus, all healthy for learning and brain changing.

Neurochemistry finds another benefit for arts education

Planning, decision-making and creativity happen in the front of the brain, the frontal cortex. When the brain is engaged in these processes it produces dopamine, one of the emotion chemicals. This process is an emotional reward system which motivates humans to create new ideas and thoughts, and generates feelings of ownership and achievement.

The arts, therefore, are basic to motivation and interest, and are also needed for students to develop a love of academic disciplines. If educators can give students the freedom to explore all forms of learning, including art and music, the neurochemistry of learning will take over.

Arts Education justified

Neuroscience has finally enabled arts education to be placed in a defendable position, but it is unfortunate that a defense is even required. Arts education has to justify its existence by demonstrating transfer to academic disciplines, whereas physical education, for example, does not.

Arts education teaches ways of thinking unavailable in any other discipline. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. Knowledge requires repetitious learning of concepts already known. Imagination requires students to create something from nothing, and transfers to every aspect of adult life and work.

Creativity is required in business, computer science, medicine, engineering, in fact any human endeavor. Without it, knowledge would stall, and the human race retreat back to the Dark Ages. Arts education is essential to keeping the flame of creativity alive.

This post was included in The Homesteading Carnival's "First of Summer" Edition.