Where Einstein Meets Edison

Entrepreneurship in Research: ELLEN WINNER On Why We Need the Arts

Entrepreneurship in Research: ELLEN WINNER On Why We Need the Arts

Mar 6, 2013

Cambridge, MA  —  Meet Ellen Winner, one of the world’s leading authorities on arts education, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College, and a principal investigator at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. Project Zero, founded in 1967 by philosopher Nelson Goodman, is a pioneer research and learning nexus devoted to studying and improving education in the arts, and investigating the nature of intelligence, thinking, creativity, cross-disciplinary thinking, and ethics.

Since 1975, Winner has been quietly gathering ammunition and waging battle in support of American culture by focusing her life’s work on the scientific study of arts education. In light of automatic federal spending cuts taking effect this month, and the continued attrition of our nation’s cultural and educational institutions, Winner’s four books, including Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (now in its second edition), and over 100 published research articles, surface as potent testimony to several decades spent measuring the invaluable habits of mind that arts education teaches us, and investigating how the skills acquired from arts education can transfer and have significant impact on other areas of our lives. Additionally, Winner directs the Arts and Mind Lab at Project Zero, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children.


Thirteen years ago, Winner and her colleague Lois Hetland conducted a set of meta-analyses of 188 reports drawn from 11,467 research articles, books, technical reports and theses on the arts and academic improvement. Their findings, published in 2000 in a special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education detailed which claims about arts improving academics were causal, correlational, or simply false. Winner’s firm approach to justifying the arts in terms of their own intrinsic value has included the systematic debunking of poorly-backed claims, and as a result has generated heat from arts advocacy groups aiming to justify the arts via spill-over effects on other academic subjects.

MITER: In Project REAP, you wrote “Let’s stop justifying the arts instrumentally. This is a dangerous (and peculiarly American) practice.”  In your own words then, what exactly is the intrinsic value of the arts, and why is this continually an area under siege in education, when other civilizations throughout history have not contested its important place in culture?

EW: First, the arts have been around longer than the sciences. The earliest humans made art, and it’s universal. People get joy out of art, self-medicate with art, and make art even in the most terrible circumstances, such as in concentration camps and in prisons. There must be something very powerful that humans gain from engagement in the arts.  The arts are a powerful way of self-expression, meaning-making and understanding the world. Nelson Goodman, a philosopher of art who influenced me a great deal, argued that the sciences and the arts are both ways of understanding our world1.

Why is it such a battle to justify the arts in our schools? We are obsessed with math, science and technology, because we think that the purpose of education is to make our economy move ahead. It started with Sputnik in 1957, competing with the Russians, and we’re still doing it! We’re forgetting about the fact that civilizations are judged by their art. To think only about math and science is a very narrow view of humanity.

MITER: There is a common perception that people who are good at math will be good at music, and vice versa. At this point, what are the biggest myths and do we definitively know about the effect of music study on the brain and cognition?

EW: There is NO definitive evidence that music improves math. Just yesterday, I was speaking about this with a mathematician at Boston College, who said that the claim music improves math ability is silly when you consider that the kind of mathematics that you need for music is so simple and so basic. We did a study of mathematicians’ self-reported musicality, comparing them to humanists. We asked over 100 PhDs in math, and over 100 PhDs in the humanities to self-report on all kinds of measures of their musicality. And guess what we found? No difference. People in the humanities are just as likely to report being musical (including playing an instrument) as people in mathematics.2

The cognitive psychologist Glenn Schellenberg has conducted one of the few studies actually demonstrating causal transfer from music training to academic performance..3 He showed that a year of music lessons compared to a year of theater lessons raises IQ by 3 points –a statistically significant increase.4 He also found that the children taking music lessons improved more than those in theater on academic tests.

ellen_winner_why_we_need_the_arts_1Why might music stimulate IQ and academic performance? Schellenberg argues that studying music is a very school-like task. You sit down, work with an adult/teacher 1-on-1, you read music from left to right, you practice daily. A school-like task like this may train school-like focus and executive functioning abilities. Schellenberg has also shown that the direction of causality also goes the other way: children with higher IQ’s are more likely to study music than those with lower IQ’s. That isn’t about music affecting IQ, it’s about IQ affecting your choice of music.

MITER: Back in the 1990’s, psychologist Frances Rauscher documented an experiment in which became popularized as “The Mozart Effect,” which claims that listening to Mozart for 10 minutes improves a person’s performance on a spatial-reasoning test. Can you comment?


EW: It is true that Frances Rauscher has shown that listening to ten minutes of Mozart’s music improves spatial reasoning.5   She showed that experience making music improves children’s “spatial-temporal” reasoning – that means their performance on spatial tasks where you hold an image in your mind and manipulate it over time. The Paper Folding task is an example: you must imagine a piece of paper in your mind, and then fold it again and again, put a hole through it, and then unfold it and see what it would look like.

But not everybody has been able to replicate her findings, and I’m not convinced about why music should train spatial thinking. Schellenberg showed that the “Mozart Effect” is not specific to music but has to do with being in a state of positive arousal.6 It is true you get the Mozart effect- if you play Mozart, people do better on a spatial task- but it turns out that if they prefer to listen to a Stephen King story, and you let them listen to a Stephen King story, they also do better and rate themselves as more positively aroused. This is entirely consistent with what many cognitive psychologists have shown: that being in a state of positive arousal improves performance on cognitive tests.

MITER: Even though you came under fire from arts advocacy groups after publishing Project REAP, essentially you are all after the same thing- more quality arts education in schools. What’s the best way to get there?

EW: After we got such hate-mail from our meta-analyses, my colleague Lois Hetland and I decided that one of the problems with all of the studies so far is that they haven’t really looked at what kids learned in an art form. The previous studies just said “If kids study the arts, are they better at X?” So we decided that if we wanted to look carefully at what transfers from the arts, we have to first look at what is learned in the “parent” domain, the arts being the parent domain.

mit_entrepreneurship_review_ellen_winner_why_we_need_the_artsLois and I spent two years observing visual arts classes in high schools for the arts, videotaping, interviewing, and then analyzing and creating a model of what we’d seen. We found eight different habits of mind being trained, very important habits of mind that have potential generalizability. And they are not SAT score kinds of things. One of the habits of mind is Envision– imagining things that you can’t see and manipulating those images in your mind. Another is Express, which is leaning to go beyond the sheer technical to create a kind of mood and feeling in your work. Reflect  is learning to think and talk with others about one’s work and the process of making it. There is an impressive amount of meta-cognition going on in art classes because there are critique sessions where you have to A) talk about your process, ie “This is what I was trying to do, this is what I did, and this is where I think I failed,” and B) you have to develop your judgment, ie “This is working because…, this is good because…, this is bad because…,” etc. Our findings are published in our book Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education.7

We are now trying to demonstrate whether these skills transfer to other areas. Lois Hetland, Lynn Goldsmith, and I have just completed a study of the effect of visual arts training on geometric reasoning.8 We’ve been looking at whether training kids in art improves their geometry performance. What we’ve found is that students at an art high school studying the visual arts grow more in geometric reasoning performance over two years than do students in the same school who are majoring in theater.  In addition, students who are really deficient at three-dimensional rendering are also poor at geometry. We think that poor drawing ability may be an early warning sign of an inability to reason about geometry.

MITER: You’ve published numerous books and articles and dedicated a great portion of your research to understanding giftedness and genius in young children. How do you define and recognize genius / giftedness?

EW: Usually it’s totally obvious whether or not a child is gifted. If you have to ask whether your child is gifted or not, he or she probably isn’t. One quality that gifted children show is a “rage to master.” That phrase, which I introduced in my book on gifted children, seems to have struck a chorc with parents. They often write me and say “That’s what my kid has, a rage to master. You just can’t tear them away from their activity. That’s all they want to do.” And of course gifted kids are years ahead of their peers in some ability. I’ve seen kids who have taught themselves to read by age three, or kids who can draw representationally at age two, and who begin to draw fairly realistically at age three. If you compare their drawings to a typical three year old, the contrast is staggering. In music there are all kinds of anecdotes…little Mozart or little Mendelssohn plucking out tunes on the piano just from hearing them.

You can have prodigies in all kinds of domains.  Tiger Woods was obsessed as a five year old with hitting golf balls. I’ve seen a child who began to speak in full sentences before the age of 12 months (note that typical children usually begin saying their first words at the age of 12 months). Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin used to watch people play chess when he was very young and the first time he actually played the game he came up on his own with a sophisticated strategy that takes a long time for most chess players to learn.

In short, you recognize giftedness when skills and performances emerge abnormally early. There is no firm boundary between a typical children, a moderately gifted child, and a prodigy…it’s just all one big continuum. Where you want to slice it is arbitrary.  

MITER: In the book Outliers, the author Malcolm Gladwell talks about “the 10,000 hour principle” and the importance of cultural legacy, luck and social engineering OVER inherent talent in the formation of unusually successful people. He describes several cases, including Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius…quoting Terman as saying “…we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from from perfectly correlated”… Can you comment on this in the context of your own research and observations on the nature/nurture debate about giftedness, and also the long-term achievements of people who are known to have been child prodigies?

EW: Malcolm Gladwell is commenting on research that was started by Anders Ericsson, who published an article that made a lot of headlines in the 90’s about the effects of what he called “deliberate practice,” which is a form of very focused hard work. He studied people who had achieved great heights in a variety of domains, whether it was athletics or music performance or whatever, and he asked them to figure out how many hours of practice in a lifetime they’d had. He then correlated their total hours of practice with the level of expertise they had reached. The greater the number of hours of practice, the higher the expertise that was achieved. This is a purely correlational finding, but it was touted as casual, that the hours of practice caused the expertise.

I’ve made the opposite argument. Nobody disputes the value of hard work. We all know that no one attains greatness without thousands of hours of deliberate practice. We also know that major creators tend to make their discoveries after 10 years of hard work in the field. After all, you can’t change the field until you master it. But Gladwell and Anders Ericsson seem to think that there is no such thing as innate talent and that all that matters ishard work. This leads to the absurd conclusion that you take anyone at random and subject them to this regimen, and produce an expert or a genius.
In addition, the rage to master is part of the talent. Why would someone be motivated to work 10,000 hours? You simply do not find this kind of motivation without the inherent genetic innate talent.

MITER: So you believe extreme talent is genetic?

EW: Yes, talent has to be biologically based because you see these things emerge so early, before parents have started training their kids. Nobody has discovered a gene for talent. That would be way too simplistic. And not all biologically based characteristics are genetic. They can also be due to the prenatal environment.  And as for what Lewis Terman said: of course we know that one’s inherent genetic potential isn’t always actualized. We know that bad environments can keep talents from being actualized, and that good environments can bring out the best in people. Sometimes child prodigies burn out because their parents push them too hard. Unfortunately most child prodigies don’t make it into the halls of fame.

Here is my take on why most prodigies don’t become major creators. Child prodigies are mastering something that has already been invented, but they are not inventing something new. In classical music, they are learning to perform the great masters. Math prodigies are mastering Western math. But to be a creative genius you have to do something new. Some prodigies make that leap from mastery to creation, but most do not. Doing something new is a very different kind of skill from mastery, and of course you have to master a domain before you can change it. Being a creator requires a certain kind of risk-taking personality. Yo-Yo Ma made the leap from prodigy to creator. So did Mozart. But many prodigies are excellent at mastery but not at challenging a domain.


Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Boston College, and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children. She is the author of over 100 articles and four books: Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts (Harvard University Press, 1982); The Point of Words: Children’s Understanding of Metaphor and Irony (Harvard University Press, 1988); Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (BasicBooks, 1997, translated into six languages and winner of the Alpha Sigma Nu National Jesuit Book Award in Science); and co-author of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (Teachers College Press, 2007). She served as President of APA’s Division 10, Psychology and the Arts, in 1995-1996, and in 2000 received the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Research by a Senior Scholar in Psychology and the Arts from Division 10.  She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 10) and of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics. winner(at)bc.edu



Ellen Winner’s websites and blog:




Project Zero: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/

Project REAP: http://www.nd.gov/arts/arts_ed/images-pdfs/HarvardT.pdf



  1. Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a General Theory of Symbols. 2nd Edition, 1976

  2. Haimson, J., Swain, D., & Winner, E. (2011). Do mathematicians have above average musical skill? Music Perception, 29, 2, 203-213.

  3. Schellenberg, E.G. (2008). Music lessons enhance IQ. Mensa Research Journal, 39(3), 35-39. [Reprinted from Schellenberg, E.G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15, 511-514.]

  4. Schellenberg, E.G. (2011). Music lessons, emotional intelligence, and IQ. Music Perception, 29, 185-194.

  5. Rauscher FH, Shaw GL, Ky KN. Music and spatial task performance. Nature 1993;365: 611.

  6. Schellenberg, E.G. (2012). Cognitive performance after music listening: A review of the Mozart effect. In R.A.R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 324-338). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  7. Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. (2013). Studio Thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education.  Second Edition. Teachers College Press.

  8. Walker, C.M., Winner, E., Hetland, L., Simmons, S., & Goldsmith, L. (2011). Visual thinking: Art students have an advantage in geometric reasoning. Creative Education,  2, 1, 22-26.


Born in New York City, Dorothy Wu spent the last decade as an international touring, teaching and performing flutist. Her lifelong interest in promoting mental, physical and emotional health inspired her to co-found Notes On The Road: The Interview Magazine for Creative Professionals, engage remote populations, hospital patients and elderly audiences in educational and outreach programs, train as an EMT, and spend six months immersed in the day-to-day life of surgeons at UC Davis Medical Center. She will be starting the Health Careers Program at the Harvard University Extension School in June 2013.

One comment

  1. I absolutely agree with Ellen Winner that no amount of hard work can produce a talent. Hard work can result in excellent skills, maybe scientific achievements, but not Art. Deliberate practice can help a famous craftsman to emerge, nevertheless it will never produce a great Artist. Art doesn’t come to life with grinding stones, it only comes through true inspiration.

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