Links between Arts, Learning, and Neuroscience Examined in New NEA Report

A graphic of a brain, made up of the word "creativity" in different sizes.
Image designed by Kelli Rogowski
WASHINGTON, DC – What are the links between brain function and creativity? How can this knowledge affect the way we learn, work, and thrive? More than a dozen experts, including neurologists, artists, and cognitive psychologists, consider these and other questions in a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts titled How Creativity Works in the Brain. The report stems from a July 2014 research workshop co-sponsored by the NEA and the Santa Fe Institute, an independent, nonprofit research and education center. The report follows other NEA initiatives at the intersection of the arts, health, and science, including the NEA/Walter Reed Healing Arts Partnership. “The time is ripe for bringing together artists, scientists, and educators to collaboratively confront the question of how creativity functions in the brain,” said Bill O’Brien, NEA senior advisor to the chairman for innovation. “Imagine the potential for our nation's health, education, culture, and productivity if we were able to truly understand the anatomy of our ‘aha’ moments, and how they can be nurtured, optimized, and deployed.” In the report, participants started from scratch, looking at how to define the concept of creativity, and how to study it in a way that integrates multiple perspectives from cognitive psychology, education, neuroscience, and the arts. The participants grappling with these questions included artist Doug Aitken, educator Mariale Hardiman (Johns Hopkins University), neurologist John Stern (University of California, Los Angeles), and cognitive psychologist Mark A. Runco (University of Georgia). A full list of participants is here. Among the conclusions from the meeting:
  • Creativity research requires more partnerships among neurobiologists, artists, psychologists, and educators.
  • More than 30 years of cognitive-behavioral research has informed our knowledge about creativity, but there is little neuroscience to back it up. The field needs neuroscientific validation of existing tools to assess creativity in individuals. If effective, these tests can be adopted more widely by our nation's educators, employers, and other decision-makers. 
  • Brain research is a young field, which makes it the perfect time to invest in creativity research, even while neuroscience models and technologies continue to develop. 
The report proposes goals for future creativity research. The first goal is to use mixed-methods research (such as combining first-person creative experiences with objective neuroscientific measurements) to discover and describe the neurobiological foundations for the creative process. The second research objective is to take existing behavioral assessments on creativity and validate them with neurobiological testing, which will help encourage their widespread use by educators and employers.  As the federal agency of record on arts research, the NEA is doing its part to investigate the arts as a tool for brain health, and as a path to overall health and well-being across the lifespan. The NEA’s Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development convenes federal agencies to share research, resources, and best practices on arts and health research, producing public webinars, symposia, and reports, including one on how the arts can combat diseases of aging. Since 2011, the NEA/Walter Reed Healing Arts Partnership has supported creative art therapy for military patients with traumatic brain injury, psychological health issues, and other diseases at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital Brain Wellness Center. NEA research grants investigate the value and impact of the arts, including its effects on learning and health. The NEA also devoted an issue of its quarterly magazine to the topic. In addition to extending the NEA’s work, this report arose from the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. This White House Grand Challenge encourages public-private neuroscience research on brain function and brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.  About the National Endowment for the Arts Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit # # # 


Sally Gifford NEA Public Affairs 202-682-5606|