Want to ‘train your brain’? Forget apps, learn a musical instrument

Musical training can have a dramatic impact on your brains structure, enhancing your memory, spatial reasoning and language skills

The multimillion dollar brain training industry being attacked. In October 2014, a group of over 100 eminent neuroscientists and psychologists wrote an open letter warns that asserts promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading. Earlier this year, industry giant Lumosity was fined$ 2m, and was necessary to refund thousands of customers who were duped by false claims that the companys products improve general mental abilities and slow the progression of age-related decline in mental abilities. And a recent review investigating analyses purporting to prove the benefits of such products find little evidence … that developing improves improves everyday cognitive performance.

While brain training games and apps may not live up to their hype, it is well established that certain other activities and lifestyle options can have neurological benefits that promote overall brain health and may help to keep the intellect sharp as we get older. One of these is musical educate. Research shows that learning to play a musical instrument is beneficial for children and adults alike, and may even be helpful to patients retrieving from brain injuries.

Music likely does something unique, explains neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster. It stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connect with it.

Playing a musical instrument is a rich and complex experience that involves incorporating information from the senses of vision, hearing, and touch, as well as fine motions, and learning to do so can induce long-lasting changes in the brain. Professional musicians are highly skilled musicians who expend years develop, and they offer a natural laboratory in which neuroscientists can analyse how such changes referred to as experience-dependent plasticity result across their lifespan.

Changes in brain structure

Early brain scanning studies disclosed significant differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians of the same age. For example, the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibers connecting the sides of the brain, is significantly larger in musicians. The brain areas involved in motion, hearing, and visuo-spatial abilities also appear to be larger in professional keyboard players. And, the area to be given to processing touch sensations from the left hand is increased in violinists.

These surveys compared data from different groups of people at one point in time. As such, they could not determine whether the observed differences were actually caused by musical train, or if existing anatomical changes predispose some to become musicians. But subsequently, longitudinal surveys that track people over hour have shown that young children who do 14 months of musical training exhibit significant structural( pdf) and functional brain changes( pdf) compared to those who do not.

Together, these studies show that learning to play a musical instrument not only increases grey matter volume in various brain regions, but can also strengthen the long-range connections between them. Other research shows that musical training also enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy skills, such that professional musicians usually outperform non-musicians on these abilities.

Long-lasting benefits for musicians

Importantly, the brain scanning surveys show that the extent of anatomical change in musicians brains is closely related to the age at which musical educate began, and the intensity of training. Those who started training at the youngest age demonstrated the largest changes when compared to non-musicians.

Even short periods of musical trained in early childhood can have long-lasting benefits. In one 2013 examine, for example, researchers recruited 44 older adults and divided them into three groups based on the level of formal musical develop they had received as children. Participants in one group had received no training at all; those in the second had done a little develop, defined as between one and three years of lessons; and those in the third had received moderate levels of training( four to 14 years ).

The researchers played recordings of complex speech sound to the participants, and used scalp electrodes to measure the timing of neural replies in a part of the auditory brainstem. As we age, the precision of this timing degenerates, inducing it difficult to understand speech, especially in surroundings with a lot of background noise. Participants who had received moderate quantities of musical educate exhibited the fastest neural answers, suggesting that even limited trained in childhood can preserve sharp processing of speech sounds and increase resilience to age-related decline in hearing.

More recently, it has become clear that musical develop facilitates the rehabilitation of patients recovering from stroke and other forms of brain damage, and some researchers now argue that it might also boost speech processing and learning in children with dyslexia and other speech impairments. Whats more, the added benefit of musical educate seem to persist for many years, or even decades, and the picture that emerges from this all proof is that learning to play a musical instrument in childhood protects the brain against the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Unlike commercial brain educate products, which merely improve performance on the skills involved, musical training has what psychologists refer to as transfer consequences in other words, learning to play a musical instrument seems to have a far broader effect on the brain and mental function, and improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.

Music reaches parts of the brain that other things cant, says Loveday. Its a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in such a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical educate improves things like running memory and speech is very robust.

Learning to play a musical instrument, then, seems to be one of the most effective forms of brain train there is. Musical develop can induce various structural and functional changes in the brain, depending on which instrument is being learned, and the intensity of the training regime. Its an example of how dramatically life-long experience can alter the brain so that it becomes adapted to the foibles of its owners lifestyle.

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