Spending an hour or three at a museum is bound to increase your store of knowledge. But museum visits not only influence what we learn, but how we learn. They spark contemplation, encourage empathy, make us more curious and increase personal creativity, according to studies and audience research.

Just looking at art has value beyond the intrinsic, said Elisabeth Callihan, head of multigenerational learning for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "People develop more self-confidence and think more creatively by interpreting works of art for themselves. And prolonged looking can lead to the kind of self-reflection that leads to transformational learning, the idea that through critical thought, you have a change in attitude or belief."

As an example, she noted artist Cy Thao's "The Hmong Migration," a series of narrative paintings in the museum's collection that depict the immigrant group's journey from war-ravaged Laos to Minnesota.

"People who look at these paintings don't just pick up a new fact or two," she said. "They experience a sort of social bridging and develop new perspectives on what these immigrants have gone through."

Museums across the country have programs that build professional development in all sorts of fields. New York City police officers have received training at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to improve observational skills. MIA staff members have done talks at the Eagan campus of Thomson Reuters, the international financial data and news company, about fakes and forgeries in the art world as a way of teaching ethics and principles of law.

How the mind is affected by the design of museums themselves — the structures that house art and artifacts — was also the subject of a recent study. It theorized that spaces intended for contemplation, such as museums and churches, may over time provide the same health benefits as regularly practicing meditation.

While adults are the focus of some studies, the bulk of such research is being done on the youngest museumgoers.

At Boston Children's Museum, early-childhood cognition experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted PlayLab experiments to test how children aged 3 months to 8 years learn. Harvard's Project Zero has found through its See, Think, Wonder initiative that art builds cognitive abilities in children across the board, but particularly in science.

"You have to be curious to be good at science," the MIA's Callihan said.

For kids, informal meandering through a museum makes learning more organic than it might be in a classroom. When they wander in their own serpentine paths, like Billy in the cartoon "The Family Circus," they feel like they're in control of their own adventure, said Marjorie Bequette, director of evaluation and research at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

"Museums do look different than other learning environments," she said. "We put a lot of thought about what goes next to what else in every exhibit, because people study things differently according to the way they're arranged."

Museums are also different because being there is generally voluntary, she said: "People are in a place they have chosen to come, doing science, whether they think about it that way or not.

"We're working on an exhibit right now about how people make health decisions. How you decide whether a medical treatment is good or throws up red flags, whether or not an alternative treatment like ginger drops works on a stomachache — these are ways of thinking about your identity."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046