08/31/2012 05:21 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Berman on the Brain: This is Your Brain on Art

Flickr: nathanial burton-bradford

In this tough economic climate, arts programs in schools, including language and music classes, are viewed as extracurricular and often the first to be cut, while core programs of math and science are protected. The potential economic benefit of trained mathematicians and scientists may be obvious to policy makers, and as scientists we can appreciate this.

It can be difficult to envision how a third grader's piano lessons will lead to future economic gains; however, the hidden benefits of language and music training on cognitive health and brain function are extensive and should not be overlooked.

Consider learning a second language, for example. It has been shown that bilingual children have enhanced attention and cognitive control over their monolingual counterparts. In fact, the advantages of being bilingual last an entire lifetime, affecting brain health into old age by delaying the onset of dementia due to Alzheimer's disease by approximately four years. It's a compelling finding that makes me I wish I had paid more attention in French class!

As countries grapple with rapidly aging populations and brace for the anticipated surge in dementia sufferers over the next few decades, there is great interest in identifying strategies that will help people maintain their cognitive health longer in the lifespan. Delaying the need for dementia-related hospitalization or nursing home care by even a couple of years can lead to significant cost savings for health care budgets.

There is also growing scientific evidence that music lessons are good for the brain. An interactive music-based, cognitive training program can enhance a pre-schooler's verbal intelligence after only 20 days of training. Other researchers found evidence that young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory compared to children who did not receive the musical training.

Given this knowledge, maybe it's not so surprising that one of the best and most technically gifted students in our cognitive neuroscience program was a music major during his undergraduate years. This is not to suggest that we should abandon math and science education in the hopes that playing the oboe or piano will lead to the understanding of differential equations. Rather this scientific evidence highlights the important impact that the arts can have on our minds and brains. To reach our full potential, we need to stop considering the arts as non-essential "extra" curricular activities and take a more holistic approach to education that includes all disciplines.

In the past, I've made a similar argument about the positive impact of parks and other green spaces on cognition and conducted scientific research with subsequent results that supported this idea. In addition, renowned nature-based education advocate Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, describes modern children as suffering from nature deficit disorder -- the result of spending too much time with computers and other digital devices. He has sounded the alarm about the impact a lost connection with nature will have on cognitive health for a new generation.

Lastly, a growing body of science is showing cardiovascular exercise to be beneficial to cognitive health and may help delay cognitive decline in later years. In sum, richer life experiences (be they physical, cultural or academic) seem to benefit mind and brain.

It is worth mentioning that music, language and the arts are not only important because they may improve memory and attention. The arts provide us with much fuller life experiences, enrich our societies, and benefit us in ways that may not be measurable.

All of this evidence should and hopefully will inform education policy. It's time to put what's "extra" back into the curriculum and embrace arts programming in schools as an essential part of building and maintaining cognitive health both in the present and into the future.