There is mounting evidence that performance arts enhance brain development at any age. A recent study found that dancers and musicians share very similar brains – they have more connections between different regions of the brain than the average non-artist. Over time, tasking the brain to create music or art requires the use of a large percentage of the brain, so these areas develop thicker interconnections, which enhances brain processing power and creativity. For example, it seems pretty obvious that musical proficiency requires math skills and hearing/sensing ability. But you may be surprised to learn that regular musical practice also facilitates the development of language ability and problem-solving skills. To the brain, music is another language to be mastered, a puzzle to be solved. Nasa engineer John Speck talks about how making music has helped him in his work. This is one argument for keeping art and music in the school curriculum, even if it isn’t something that can be measured on a standardized test.

A similar effect can be attributed to dancing, a topic I’ve addressed previously. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine studied eleven different types of activity, ranging from cycling to golf and found that dance was only activity that lowered participants’ risk of dementia.

When it comes to art – whether it’s painting, photography, sculpture or some other medium, the results are similar. The process of visualizing, planning, creating, and editing a work of art requires multiple parts of the brain, with neurons from multiple parts of the brain building stronger and stronger connections.

The performing arts, as they are often called, are also being used as therapy and treatment for a variety of brain diseases and cognitive malfunctions. One study demonstrated an improvement in the language abilities of autistic children when they studied music. In cognitive psychology, art therapy is a recognized and well-documented approach for many cognitive and emotional conditions.

Disrupting our Perceptions of Illness and the Brain

When I approached public interest lawyer turned artist Elizabeth Jameson for an interview, I thought I knew what to expect. On her web site, Elizabeth talks about how she turned to art when her MS no longer allowed her to practice law. She decided to make her own “imperfect brain” a source of inspiration, combining science, technology and art in the way she transforms her own brain scans into mesmerizing images. Elizabeth is a warm and expressive person and you can learn a lot about beauty, hope and inspiration from the study of her work. Her interview is on our LearningToGo Podcast series. If you want to help fight the devastation of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society page and learn more.