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Arts, Brains, and Bodies: What Might Neurophysiological Measures Teach Us?

In my roles as Senior Research Scientist at WolfBrown and Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, I conduct evaluations of educational programs for children — in particular, children at risk.

One of the areas in which I work is early childhood education. Over the last two decades, there has been growing interest among policy-makers and the public in this area. Part of this interest has been driven by the successful use of neurophysiological measures to show how early education programs affect the function of children’s brains. It is one thing to demonstrate that students in high-quality early education programs have better test scores in kindergarten than their peers; it’s quite another to show that these differences are rooted in changes in children’s brains and bodies.

Arts and cultural organizations and their evaluators may feel that using neurophysiological measures is beyond them, due to cost and complexity. It’s true that using neuroimaging techniques to observe the structure and function of children’s brains is tremendously expensive. However, recent advances in technology have made other, non-invasive neurophysiological measures relatively affordable. For example, it is now possible to examine children’s levels of stress by measuring the hormones in their saliva, or to track their engagement in a task by recording their heartbeats.

The investment and partnership can be worthwhile and revealing. One arts-infused early childhood program, Kaleidescope, at Settlement Music School, has begun to use those saliva measures to investigate whether levels of stress hormones are associated with lower levels of negative emotions, and higher levels of positive ones, among children participating in the program.

This work at the frontier of neuroscience and art is still young. But evidence for neuroplasticity in children is part of what is driving organizations as varied as string quartets and art museums to think about how to engage and support individuals who process experiences differently — families with members on the autism spectrum or adults with Alzheimer’s.

Of course, neurophysiological measurement requires specialized expertise and training to be used effectively and responsibly. My suggestion: pool your resources. Even if no one in your organization has this expertise, people in other organizations do, including researchers working in colleges and universities. They may be willing to help in exchange for an opportunity to apply their expertise to the ‘real world.’

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