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How the Arts Support Teen Brain Development

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Most people agree that art and music are enjoyable, but a growing field of study – neuroaesthetics – shows they can also change the way the brain works. Through brain imaging tools, we know that the arts make people feel good, teach essential thinking skills, and help wire the brain for success.

Exercise for the Brain

When teens create art, they’re doing more than doodling. They’re building connections that impact the way their brain develops, say researchers with the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study.

As part of a project in ChildArt magazine, several successful artists and scientists reflected on the ways early exposure to art changed their lives. They shared how it altered their perspective on learning, re-focused their mind, and helped them find their passions.

We’ll now share seven additional ways art can strengthen the teen brain. A couple of these might surprise you.

1. Reading Skills

Studies consistently associate music instruction with better verbal memory and scores on standardized tests of reading ability. This is likely because music and language require similar decoding processes to break down different sounds and tones.

A study by the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute shows learning a musical instrument may accelerate brain development. Teens who were learning to play had more developed pathways from the ear to the brain, which can help with reading and language development.

2. Math Skills

Math is closely tied to music. Both involve counting (beats and rests), geometry (finger positions on instruments), and understanding of proportions (how long to hold notes). Imaging studies show the same areas of the brain are activated during mathematical processing and musical training. In one study, students who learned to play an instrument increased their math test scores by over 50 percent.

Simply listening to music benefits the brain, but learning to play an instrument can bring about permanent changes in the structure and function of the brain. As a result, young people enjoy enhanced spatial thinking, memory recall, critical thinking, and cognitive performance.

3. Academic Commitment

Several studies show involvement in the arts can boost academic achievement among young people. For example:

  • Teens who study the arts are less likely to be suspended from school and are more optimistic about their chances of going to college than students who didn’t study the arts.
  • A 2013 study found that music education can enhance IQ.
  • A 10-year study from Stanford University found young people involved in arts programs were four times more likely to win an academic award.

4. Internal Visualization and Imagery

Art education activates different parts of the brain than teens typically use in school. It also changes the way information is stored in the brain by improving how teens visualize things that have happened and imagine things that have yet to happen. This is an important part of learning retention and creativity.

5. Physical Health

Art forms with a physical element, such as dance, can also improve brain performance. Research shows these activities:

  • Facilitate blood transport
  • Increase the amount of oxygen in the blood, which boosts cognitive performance
  • Improve spatial relationships and long-term recall

6. Self-Expression & Emotional Well-Being

Art also promotes mental health. Art therapy, for example, has proven to reduce anxiety and depression in teens, reduce stress, and promote optimism. But teens don’t have to participate in formal art therapy to reap the benefits. Research also shows art instruction can boost self-confidence and help teens focus on the present moment – a tool that has proven effective for managing mental health.

Art also encourages teens to focus beyond the present moment. Some researchers believe art instills hope for teens with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues by helping them imagine a brighter future and giving them a sense of control over their own lives.

7. Healthy Rewards

Art activates the reward center of the brain. For teens struggling with substance abuse and other mental health issues, art can be a healthy way to feel good without drugs or alcohol. In one study, teens receiving music instruction were 26 percent less likely to drink alcohol and 24 percent less likely to use marijuana than non-music students.

Learning for Life

Art education plays an important role in teens’ lives. In addition to being enjoyable, art can enhance brain development in ways that promote learning and life skills above and beyond standard academic instruction.

Since schools may have minimal creative offerings, parents can help teens reap the benefits of art education by scheduling art or music classes after school, setting up an art studio at home, visiting art museums or theaters, or just spending time together dancing, listening to new types of music or working on an art project. Teens struggling with mental health disorders may consider art therapy as an evidence-based complement to other therapies. In any form, art can improve adolescents’ quality of life.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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