We know that the brain has a system of neural pathways dedicated to attention. We know that training these attention networks improves general measures of intelligence. And we can be fairly sure that focusing our attention on learning and performing an art—if we practice frequently and are truly engaged—activates these same attention networks. We therefore would expect focused training in the arts to improve cognition generally.

Some may construe this argument as a bold associative leap, but it’s grounded in solid science. The linchpin in this equation is the attention system. Attention plays a crucial role in learning and memory, and its importance in cognitive performance is undisputed. If you really want to learn something, pay attention! We all know this intuitively, and plenty of strong scientific data back it up.

The idea that training in the arts improves cognition generally really is not so bold within the context of what we call activity-dependent plasticity, a basic tenet of brain function. It means that the brain changes in response to what you do. Put another way, behavior shapes and sculpts brain networks: What you do in your day-to-day life is reflected in the wiring patterns of your brain and the efficiency of your brain’s networks. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in your attention networks.1

For most of us, if we find an art that “works” for us—that incites our passion and engages us wholeheartedly—and we stick with it, we should notice improvements in other cognitive areas in which attention is important, such as learning and memory, as well as improving cognition in general.


Michael I. Posner, Ph.D., and Brenda Patoine
Dana Foundation