Quick Study: August 19, 2021

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. I’m copiloting Quick Study with Sunil Iyengar. He’s the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed: Well, parents are getting ready for their kids to return to the classroom after, what, a year and a half of virtual learning? And we know that the arts, arts education, arts integration in the classroom can play such an important role in this tricky transition.

Sunil Iyengar: That’s right, Jo. The arts and indeed, many of the arts education programs and organizations that the NEA supports can help to address the needs of not just students, but also, educators at this critical time, the arts especially can be used to help address healing and to address trauma. We know that involvement in the arts can support the social and emotional learning needs of students. Our studies have seen that it helps in improving emotional regulation, coping, empathy in others, and that the arts can provide an outlet for students to process their emotions from disaster and trauma to begin the healing process and build resiliency. This will be a key factor to successful transitions, I’m sure, in reopening schools.

Jo Reed: We also see access to arts education actually translates into improvement in other areas for students and especially students who don’t come from privileged backgrounds.

Sunil Iyengar: That’s right. We’ve seen access to arts education oftentimes through our studies, it’s shown that it closes the opportunity gap while helping all students thrive. The studies show that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have access to the arts in or out of school are more likely to set higher career goals and even have higher scores on STEM test subjects.

Jo Reed: Well, that relates very nicely to a recent study you wanted to highlight from Auburn University and let me toot our own horn-- this was a study that was supported by a research grant from the NEA.

Sunil Iyengar: Correct. It’s very exciting. Researchers at Auburn University in Alabama have just published this article called “Observational Drawing in the Brain: A Longitudinal Exploratory FMRI Study.” In their article, the researchers point out that arts education is often devalued in curricular programs. This is because while arts education, especially in visual arts, is generally understood to involve training our perceptions, we don’t know a lot about how it can enhance our cognitive abilities. There’s also been a shortage of well-designed studies showing that training in the arts can directly cause improvements in learning in other subjects.

Jo Reed: So, what did this new study discover about visual arts education?

Sunil Iyengar: So, the new study suggests that learning basic drawing techniques and concepts are positively associated with brain changes in cognitive processing. This includes functional changes in the brain areas responsible for attention, decision making, motor control, visual information processing, and working memory.

Jo Reed:  How did they discover this? What was the methodology?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, researchers followed students enrolled in a 16-week college-level course in observational drawing. So, the instructors sought to improve perceptual, cognitive, and technical skills in those students. The course required still life drawing, where you closely observe objects and you render them as real-like as you can. The objects included things like animal skulls, drapery, plants, chairs, and boxes. These were arranged so as to invite students to solve specific visual and technical problems.

Jo Reed: Okay. Then what?

Sunil Iyengar: The students were compared with undergraduates who did not take the drawing class. These groups were pretty evenly matched in terms of age, gender, and whether they were right-handed or left-handed, though the students taking the art class did show they had previous art experience more often than the control group. Anyway, what’s neat about the study is that both groups were asked to perform a set of visual observation tasks while in an MRI machine. They did this twice, once near the start of the study and once near the end.

Jo Reed: Okay. When you say a set of visual observation tasks, that means nothing to me. What do you mean by this?

Sunil Iyengar: Right. I understand. Well, the students were presented with photographs or other images and were asked to push a button in response to multiple choice questions about what they’d seen. These tasks included understanding the sources and direction of light, observing variation in tonal value, variation in line quality, and understanding linear perspective. Also, apart from the FMRI scans, the art class students were rated on improvements in their drawing over the study period.

Jo Reed: Okay. I’m assuming that the students who participated in the art class saw their drawing skills improve.

Sunil Iyengar: Right.

Jo Reed: But I don’t think you would be excited if that was the only result.

Sunil Iyengar: That’s right. What’s fascinating are the brain scan results. When all the students first had their brains scanned, there was no difference between the art students and the non-art students in terms of their performance on the visual observation tasks I mentioned. However, when the students were scanned near the end of the study period, the art students showed functional brain changes in terms of understanding line variation, linear perspective, and tonal value. The affected areas were in the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum and they may indicate brain plasticity, the researchers say. The use of the control group told them that these changes occurred as a direct result of the drawing course. So, that’s the big deal.

Jo Reed: Wow. That is a big deal. Okay. So, you know me. I want to know what the implications are for this.

Sunil Iyengar: Right. So, I’m glad you asked, Jo. The researchers write that their findings, quote, “Demonstrate some of the first functional changes in the brain due to training in the arts and have implications for pedagogy and mental health.” In fact, the Auburn University team recommends that future studies look at how these changes can affect patients in occupational or mental health settings and how art training can be customized to tackle specific cognitive challenges.

Jo Reed: So, I’m right in assuming this is just opening the door to a whole raft in new research about the arts and wellbeing in the brain.

Sunil Iyengar: That’s correct. In recent years, there’s been some attention to music and music’s ability to foster cognitive improvement in the brain and also, healthy behavioral patterns and there’s been a lot of research around the arts and education more broadly, but what this does is now lifts up drawing and visual arts and visual observation and how that can be-- how broader cognitive processes can be influenced potentially by drawing. So, get out your sketch pad, I guess, Jo.

Jo Reed: Well, I’m sure we’ll be following this as the research continues.

Sunil Iyengar: Thank you. Yes. We’re pleased to fund a lot of these kinds of studies through our research grants program and of course, this is a research grant and we have actually done studies in the past. We’ve supported research around drawing and social emotional learning. So, hop on to our website if you’re interested, arts.gov.

Jo Reed: That’s great. Thank you so much, Sunil. I’ll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar: Looking forward to it.

Jo Reed: As am I. That was Sunil Iyengar. He’s the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. This has been Quick Study. The music is “We Are One” from Scott Holmes Music. It’s licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.  

In this episode of Quick Study, we explore a new study that contributes to growing empirical evidence about the value of an arts education.