Petitto, L. (2008). Arts education, the brain, and language. In C. Asbury & C. Rich (Eds.) Learning, Arts, and the Brain. New York, NY: Dana Foundation.


This study examines the impact of intensive arts education on the human brain. The study has two parts. Part one looks at the impact of intensive dance education on higher cognition, including attention and biological motion perceptual abilities (the ability to perceive motion of the human form such as walking or dancing from only a few key points on the body’s joints – a visual form of connect-the-dots). Part two examines the impact of extensive music education in childhood on learning a second language in adulthood, testing the hypothesis that monolingual musicians would learn a second language better than matched non-musicians.

Key Findings:

  • Behavioral studies revealed that dancers were significantly more accurate than non-dancers on an attention task and were faster on the Biological Motion Perception Task (Part one), indicating dance education may benefit working memory and motion processing (i.e., dancers’ brains process motion faster than non-dancers).
  • Musicians exhibited significantly increased second language performance, greater improvement in expressive fluency, and competency compared to non-musicians (Part two).
  • The researcher examined four of the seven candidate genes posited to explain the behavioral differences between dancers and non-dancers. Of these, only one possible relationship emerged indicating that the higher cognitive performance of dancers was due to their dance education, rather than a genetic predisposition.

Significance of the Findings:

These findings have the potential to provide educators, policy makers, and parents with evidence that early and sustained arts education may provide long-lasting advantages in other core cognitive domains. Overall, the findings support the notion of transfer of learning, indicating that extensive arts education may yield higher cognitive executive function advantages during the processing of other non-arts information. The findings concerning dance education suggest that its effects may positively transfer to other cognitive areas, such as resisting interference from competing signals, the ability to selectively focus attention, and the cognitive processing of biological motion. The findings concerning music education suggest that there may be an enduring cognitive advantage as a result of early and extensive music education on adult learning of a new language in a formal learning setting.


Part one: participants were adults who had sustain and intensive dance training that began prior to turning seven years old (dancers), and a matched group who had little or no formal dance training (non-dancers). Data collection tools designed for the study were: (1) the Dance/Music screening and background questionnaires – used to identify experts versus novices in dance/music; (2) language screening and background questionnaires; and (3) the language and cognitive tasks – to measure language competence, non-verbal relational reasoning, and cognitive and attention processing. Brain imaging technology (functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy – fNIRS) was used to measure brain activation levels while participants completed the language and cognition tasks. Genetic testing was also conducted on the two groups. T-tests were conducted to compare language and behavioral results.

Part two: participants were students enrolled in a beginning language class (either Spanish or Italian). Students completed questionnaires about their music experiences. Researchers identified those with music experience (musicians) and selected a match comparison group from those without music training (non-musicians). Participants were then measured for their English proficiency, new language proficiency, and attention levels. Statistical tests used to compare the groups are not identified.

Limitations of the Research:

Sample sizes were not specified, but can be assumed to be small. Study design does not permit causal inference.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What other specific cognitive advantages accrue to those with early and sustained education in the arts? What “dosage” of arts education is required to discern positive cognitive impacts?