Mozart would have been wicked good at Call of Duty

At his always-excellent Frontal Cortex blog, Jonah Lehrer compiles some evidence that education in the arts is good for the brain in general. And then he starts talking about videogames, self-expression, and flow:

My one worry with these empirical defenses of arts education is that they ultimately fail to explain why teaching kids about Picasso or Mozart is superior to video games. After all, numerous studies of video game enthusiasts have found marked improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to "marked increases in the speed of information processing". One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just ten days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent arcade game, subjects showed dramatic increases in visual attention and memory. Does this mean we should supplant arts education with World of Warcraft? I hope not. What I do think it demonstrates, however, is the fundamental limitation of making a case for arts education by relying too heavily on cognitive measures that can be quickly assessed in a lab.
My own defense of arts education relies more heavily on a rather nebulous mental skill: self-expression. I shudder to think that second graders, at least in most schools, are never taught the value of putting their mind on the page. They are drilled in spelling, phonetics and arithmetic (the NCLB school day must be so tedious), and yet nobody ever shows them how to take their thoughts and feelings and translate them into a paragraph or a painting. We assume that creativity will take care of itself, that the imagination doesn't need to be nurtured. But that's false. Creativity, like every cognitive skill, takes practice; expressing oneself well is never easy.
Finally, I think arts education, and the self-expression it encourages, can give children a tiny taste of an essential mental state: flow. First proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a condition of complete and effortless focus, characterized by total immersion in the task at hand. We don't notice the clock, or think about what we're eating for lunch - we're just thinking about what we're doing. (Not surprisingly, people are exceedingly happy while engaged in flow activities, be it composing a poem or constructing a Legos set.*)
Children have an extraordinary natural capacity for flow. (I've always loved this Auden aphorism, which he adapted from Nietzsche: "Maturity - to recover the seriousness one had as a child at play.") Unfortunately, I think most school kids never experience a taste of flow at school. Instead, they are drilled in all the usual subjects, from arithmetic to reading. The downside of this pedagogy is that it leads kids to conclude that learning is a dry and tedious pursuit, where we will always count the minutes until recess. Perhaps arts education improves our attentional system because it shows children that attention isn't always hard work. Sometimes, we want to focus, because we enjoy what we're focused on.

Good stuff. I suspect that the each art also has its own lessons to teach that is specific to each discipline. 

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