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Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Lab of Adele Diamond

Studies on the Benefits of the Arts and Physical Activities
for the Outcomes we all want for our Children


The Division of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at UBC, headed by Dr. Adele Diamond, is world famous for research on a region of the brain known as ‘prefrontal cortex’ and for work on what are called ‘executive functions,’ which depend on prefrontal.

Executive Functions (EFs)

The 3 core EFs are:

Inhibitory control

  • self-control (thinking before you act; resisting your first impulse so you don’t do or say something you’d regret)
  • discipline (resisting all the temptations not to stay on task and complete what you started)
  • attentional control (being able to concentrate, pay attention, and stay focused)

Working Memory

  • mentally relating one idea or fact to another (so you can reason and so you can creatively see connections between seemingly unconnected things)
  • re-ordering the sequence of items you are holding in mind or updating that information

Cognitive Flexibility

  • thinking outside the box (so you can conceive of a problem in a new way or come up with a different way of addressing it; creative problem-solving)
  • flexibility (to take advantage of sudden opportunities, quickly adapt to changed circumstances, and admit you were wrong when you get new information)

Not surprisingly, EFs are predictive of achievement, health, wealth, and quality of life throughout life, often more predictive than IQ or socio-economic status (SES).

Vulnerability of Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) to problems in any area of your life

EFs depend on PFC and other brain regions with which PFC is interconnected. PFC is the newest and most vulnerable region of the brain. If you’re sad or stressed, lonely, sleep-deprived, or not physically fit, PFC and EFs will suffer first and most. Conversely, you show better EFs when you feel emotionally and socially nourished and your body is healthy.

Theory proposed by Adele Diamond

Dr. Diamond has proposed that that the activities and programs that will most improve EFs will be those that not only train and challenge EFs (working to directly improving them) but those that also indirectly support EFs by reducing things that disrupt EFs (like stress) and/or by increasing things that aid EFs (like social support).

What activities directly train and challenge executive functions and

indirectly support them by also addressing social, emotional, and physical needs?

Some of the activities that do that best are the arts (like music-making, dance, or theatre) and physical activities (like team sports, martial arts, or youth circus). They challenge EFs (demanding focused concentration, holding complex sequences in mind, flexibly adjusting to the unexpected, etc.), make us happy and proud (participants see very concretely that with effort they can succeed), address social needs (involve working together as a team toward a valued, shared goal), and help improve physical skills and fitness.

Thus we propose that the arts & physical activities may be critical for the best EFs & hence for the best health, educational, & workplace outcomes for our children and our nation.

Examples of studies we are eager and ready to do,
if only we can obtain the needed funding

Possible Benefits of Social, Communal Dance for EFs and Academic Outcomes,
and for Emotional, Social, and Physical Health

Social, communal dance, fitness training (aerobics and resistance training), and standard physical education (PE) would be delivered in school (2 times a weekly for 24 weeks) to Grade 6 students in public schools. Classes will be randomly assigned to condition. The children will be assessed before and after the 24 weeks, 6 months and 1 year later, and yearly thereafter for some years on objective, standardized measures of different EF components, academic skills, and physical skills and fitness. as well as on questionnaire measures of their perceived EFs, mood, self-confidence, autonomy, self-efficacy, stress, and social supports. Participants are also to keep diaries of their outside-of-school activities that they will upload to us weekly. We have the school board approvals, the enthusiastic interest of the needed schools and teachers, and instructors for these activities eager to participate.

We predict: Social, communal dance will improve EFs and academic performance, as well as emotional, social, and physical well-being, while fitness training (with cognitive demands intentionally absent) and standard PE will not (though fitness training should improve physical fitness more than standard PE).

These predictions are based on social, communal dance being both physically and cognitively demanding, fun, and building a sense of community, emphasizing that participants work together. Fitness training and standard PE, on the other hand, are not cognitively demanding and focus on individual rather than group performance though they (like dance) build physical skills and fitness and provide clear benchmarks which children take pride in achieving.

Possible Benefits of Youth Circus for EFs and Academic Outcomes,

and for Emotional, Social, and Physical Health

Inner city youths (ages 10-11 at study entry) would be randomly assigned to a youth circus (YC), Boys and Girls Club (BGC), or gymnastics after-school program, or no program, stratified by age, gender, ethnicity, and presence of a learning disorder or clinical diagnosis. Recruitment procedures are all in place as are agreements from the after-school programs for their participation. Our study will cover expenses for participating in a program (those in no program will receive the funds directly) and will provide transportation to and from the programs, but a youth must commit to participating for 24 weeks (2 hours 2x/week) in whichever program he or she is randomly assigned. The youths will be tested just before and after these 24 weeks, 6 months and 1 year later, and yearly thereafter for some years. Outcome measures will be similar to those for the study above. Participants are also to keep diaries of their outside-of-school activities, including in the programs, uploading them weekly. Activity leaders are also to write detailed notes after each session, uploading them weekly.

We predict: (1) YC will aid EFs (& thus academics) more than the other programs because only YC addresses all the components we’ve predicted are important. (2) BGC and gymnastics will benefit EFs (& thus academics) more than no program because these address some components predicted to matter.

YC is about teaching “the art of life through circus,” building character and inspiring children, especially those most disadvantaged. There are >200 YC groups in the US and Canada serving 1,000’s of children of all abilities, physiques, economic means, genders, and ethnicity, ages 4-18, special needs and typically-developing. YC activities are (1) cognitively demanding, requiring increasing levels of focused attention, WM, and quick, flexible responses to the unexpected. They hold kids to high standards, requiring hard work, discipline, and perseverance. (2) They often ignite the avid and passionate interest needed to commit to sustained practice and continued challenge, providing a source of pride and self-confidence. Respect for youths’ voice and their involvement in decision-making are core YC values. (3) YCs facilitate nurturing adult-youth and close youth-youth relationships. The children become a community, working together, helping and relying on one another. The goal is less individual excellence than excellence of the group effort.77 YCs provide many of the same elements as team sports but no one loses. (4) Most YC activities (even clowning) are physically demanding. Participants develop better fitness, balance, flexibility, strength, coordination, etc.

Study of EF Benefits from Learning to Play an Instrument as part of an
Ensemble from the Start versus Learning to Play an Instrument Alone First

How essential is the social component: Does learning to play an instrument as part of an ensemble from the start improve EFs significantly more than does trying to master an instrument first, before playing with others? In El Sistema-inspired orchestra programs in Canada and the US, the joy of playing is emphasized; improvements in technique are thought to follow ( “passion first, refinement second”). The primary skill youths learn is not their instrument, but working together. Learning in all El Sistema-inspired programs is based in ensemble experience (“Orchestra is one group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement”). Children help one another (“The person who can play 3 notes is the teacher to the person who can play 2 notes”); everyone is both teacher and learner. We want to study some children as they first join an El Sistema-inspired program and some children as they start to receive private, individual lessons from the faculty of that program, outside the program.

Storytelling as an Aid to help Kindergarten Children develop Better EFs

The more EFs are challenged, the more they improve. Evidence shows that it’s harder to keep details in mind (taxing working memory more) and keep one’s attention from wandering (taxing attentional control more) when just listening than when listening is supported by visual depictions. Since EFs are challenged more if information is presented only verbally versus both verbally and visually, listening without visual depictions should improve EFs more.

Our predictions are: (1) telling children stories (storytelling sans visual aids) should improve the EFs of working memory and attentional control more than will telling them stories while they can look at puppets enacting the stories and (2) reading children stories where only the story-reader looks at the pages should improve children’s working memory and attentional control more than will reading them stories where they can see the pictures on the page.

These ‘story times’ will occur in kindergarten classes 2 times a week for 12 weeks each term (48 sessions over 24 weeks with length of the stories gradually increasing to keep challenging attentional control and working memory). We’ll assess working memory, attention, and academic skills pre- and post-intervention, 6 months later, and 1 and 2 years after, and story recall after each session.

WHY the evidence we hope to gather
will persuade those who hold the purse strings
of the
essential value of the arts and physical activities in children’s lives

What would persuade policymakers and administrators that activities like team sports, music, dance, martial arts, or theatre or are not simply frills, but are absolutely essential for children to thrive?

What’s needed is evidence that these activities are important for the bottomline:

Education policymakers at all levels of government care that we are falling behind other countries in students’ math and science achievement.

Business leaders care that they can’t find people with vision and imagination, capable of creative problem-solving and incisive reasoning.

Government leaders and corporate executives alike care that billions of dollars are spent each year on the social and medical consequences of poor “executive functions” – such as aggressive outbursts and crime, reckless driving, substance abuse, and poor decisions – those billions could be saved if children only developed better executive functions.

What’s needed is the hard-nosed, state-of-the art of the research we hope to conduct that can demonstrate to government and business leaders, in language they understand, that activities like music, dance, sports, and other similar activities are critical for the outcomes we all want for our children and for our nation.

What’s needed is exactly the kind of research we are so eager to conduct if only we can secure the funds to do so.


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