Magazine article Art Education

Linking Brain Research to Art

Magazine article Art Education

Linking Brain Research to Art

Article excerpt

What we are learning about the brain and how it grows to help create each of us as a unique person has direct and profound implications for education. In particular, the necessity for art education is imperative. This article will begin with a review of recent brain research in education and then follow with a discussion of implications for art instruction. We will conclude with some ideas we are exploring at the elementary school level.


In his seminal work on brain research for educators,A Celebration of Neurons, Robert Sylwester (1995) wrote that, "The brain is less like a computer and more like a rich, layered ecology of a jungle environment" (p. 18). In Emotional Intelligence, Dan Goleman (1995) explained that fundamentally people have two minds-a thinking mind and a feeling mind. These two minds work together, and sometimes against one another, in determining how we learn and who we become. Goleman went on to present a description of both how the human brain evolved and how it functions:

From the most primitive root, the brainstem, emerged the emotional centers. Millions of years later in evolution, from these emotional areas evolved the thinking brain of 'neocortex,' the great bulb of convoluted tissues that make up the top layers. The fact that the thinking brain grew from the emotional reveals much about the relationship of thought to feeling; there was an emotional brain before there was a rational one. (p. 10)

The message is clear; the emotional brain is the first to receive input and thus is able to react first, before the thinking brain. Therefore, while we are still thinking about the logical response we should make, our emotional brain is already providing an emotional response. Emotions do affect our learning and our memory.


We know that emotion plays a critical role in the development of personality and learning. Our focus now shifts to the issue of genetics and experience in terms of determining how people learn. Is learning attributed to nature or nurture? According to many brain researchers there is no controversy. We need both the natural material of a healthy brain and a supportive and nurturing environment. While the human brain might be hard-wired at birth, experience further helps to mold each person as a very unique individual.

Our genes do play a very distinct role. Specifically, Viadero (1996) wrote, "Me circuits that form essentially decide who we are. They can influence whether a child becomes short or tall, musically talented or tone-deaf, silvertongued, or tongue-tied" (p. 32). Sylwester (1995) explained the human brain's genetic growth with the following progression:

(1) create an initial excess of cells and connections among related areas-in effect temporarily wire up everything to everything, (2) use emotion, experience, and learning to strengthen the useful connections, and then prune away the unused and inefficient, and (3) maintain enough synaptic flexibility (commonly called plasticity) to allow neural network connections to shift about throughout life as conditions change and new problem-solving challenges emerge. (p. 126)

As stated above, the human brain has the ability to grow and change. This special ability-plasticity-lessens with age, but each child's brain will continue to make rapid progress in neural connections throughout the elementary school years. Thus, according to Kotulak (1996),

Researchers believe that genes, the chemical blue-prints of life, establish the framework of the brain, but then the environment takes over and provides the customized finishing touches. They work in tandem. The genes provide the building blocks, and the environment acts like an on-the-job foreman, providing instruction for final construction. (P. 4)

A baby is born with about 100 billion brain cells, or neurons. At the time of birth children possess many more neurons than they will have as an adult. …

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