Neuroscientists have made enormous breakthroughs in understanding how our brains work by monitoring them in real time with instruments like FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanners.
When people are hooked up to these machines, tasks, such as reading or doing math problems, each have corresponding areas of the brain where activity can be observed. However, when researchers got the participants to listen to music, they saw fireworks.
It turns out that while listening to music engages the brain in some pretty interesting activities, playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout.
The neuroscientists saw multiple areas of the brain light up, simultaneously processing different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly rapid sequences. Playing a musical instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once, especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices.
Playing music has also been found to increase the volume and activity in the brain’s corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres, allowing messages to get across the brain faster and through more diverse routes.
This may allow musicians to solve problems more effectively and creatively, in both academic and social settings. Because making music also involves crafting and understanding its emotional content and message, musicians often have higher levels of executive function, a category of interlinked tasks that includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail and requires simultaneous analysis of both cognitive and emotional aspects.
This ability also has an impact on how our memory systems work. And, indeed, musicians exhibit enhanced memory functions, creating, storing, and retrieving memories more quickly and efficiently.
Studies have found that musicians appear to use their highly connected brains to give each memory multiple tags, such as a conceptual tag, an emotional tag, an audio tag, and a contextual tag – similar to a good Internet search engine.
How do we know that all these benefits are unique to music, as opposed to, say, sports or painting? Alternatively, could it be that people who go into music were already smarter to begin with?
Neuroscientists have explored these issues, but so far, they have found that the artistic and aesthetic aspects of learning to play a musical instrument are different than any other activity studied, including other arts.
Moreover, several randomized studies of participants, who showed the same levels of cognitive function and neural processing at the start, found that those who were exposed to a period of music learning showed enhancement in multiple brain areas, compared to the others.
This recent research about the mental benefits of playing music has advanced our understanding of mental function, revealing the inner rhythms and complex interplay that make up the incredible orchestra of our brain.
Talk about a good reason to keep music study in school.
What do you think about these developments?
Do you play a musical instrument?
Take a look at the video below for more information!