The multimillion dollar brain training industry with their Apps and Online programs etc. have had their exaggerated claims somewhat debunked by a review which examined studies purporting to show the benefits of such products and found “little evidence … that training improves everyday cognitive performance”. This probably goes for Sudoku and ‘brain training’ word games too which only improve performance of the skills involved, although as pastimes they probably only ‘waste’ the limited and valuable time their players have left on the planet!
HOWEVER it is well established that certain other activities can have positive neurological benefit to overall brain health and may even help to keep the mind sharper as we age and one of these is learning to play a musical instrument. The process of musical training shows ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ occurs in the brain and has ‘transfer effects’ that seem to have a far wider effect on the brain and mental functioning as well as improving other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.
“Music probably 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 connection with it.”
Playing a musical instrument necessarily involves integrating information using our senses of vision, hearing, and touch and involves coordination, fine movements as well as cognition and learning. Dr Bernard Ross, of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada, demonstrated that “learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music” and the centre now uses musical training to help stroke survivors rehabilitate motor movement in their upper bodies. This ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ demonstrates the brains ability to rewire itself and compensate for injuries or diseases that may hamper a person’s capacity to perform tasks by inducing long-lasting changes in the brain. Nonscientific studies of professional musicians have also shown these structural brain changes have a dramatic impact by enhancing memory, spatial reasoning, language and literacy skills.
Researchers also hope the finding could lead to older people being taught to play instruments to halt dementia related conditions as learning to play even a sound on a musical instrument improves listening and hearing skills over a short time frame. Drs Tram Nguyen and Jessica A. Grahn of the University of Western Ontario suggest that not only is it possible for stronger cognitive function to stave off dementia, but it also allows one to enjoy a better quality of life with a more active brain. “That you can get from music, but music isn’t necessarily special in that way, except for the fact that music also tends to have mood benefits,” and these music related mood benefits also help one learn to play an instrument as well! Having a positive mood and reducing stress is also very good for general well-being and sleep, which is also known to enhance brain function. Listening and playing music reduces stress has been shown to release dopamine in reward areas of the brain, the same ones that light up in response to food, sex and drugs, so what’s not to like?