The industry of brain training, which generates millions in revenue, is currently under scrutiny due to false claims and exaggerated marketing strategies. A group of more than 100 neuroscientists and psychologists wrote an open letter in October 2014, warning of misleading and exaggerated claims made by companies promoting brain games. Lumosity, an industry giant, was fined $2 million earlier this year due to false claims about the efficacy of their products in improving mental abilities and slowing down age-related mental decline. Furthermore, a recent review of supposed studies highlighting the benefits of brain training games found little evidence to support claims of everyday cognitive performance improvement.
Although brain training games and apps may not be as effective as advertised, other activities and lifestyle choices have proven to be beneficial to overall brain health and may help keep the mind sharp as we age. One of these activities is musical training. Learning to play a musical instrument has been found to be beneficial for both children and adults alike and even for individuals recovering from brain injuries.
Neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday explains that music probably does something unique in that it stimulates the brain in a very powerful way due to our emotional connection with it. Playing a musical instrument is a complex experience that involves integrating sensory information, fine motor movements, and learning. Because of this, learning to play an instrument can cause long-lasting changes in the brain. Professional musicians present a unique opportunity for neuroscientists to study how such changes, known as experience-dependent plasticity, develop across an individual’s lifespan.
Studies have found significant differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians of the same age. For example, professional keyboard players have larger brain areas involved in movement, hearing and visuo-spatial abilities, while violinists have an increased area devoted to processing touch sensations from the left hand. Additionally, longitudinal studies tracking people over time have shown structural and functional brain changes in children who receive musical training compared to those who do not.
Research has shown that learning to play a musical instrument increases grey matter volume in various brain regions and can strengthen the long-range connections between them. Furthermore, musical training enhances verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. Brain scanning studies have found that the extent of anatomical change in musicians’ brains is closely related to the age at which musical training began and the intensity of training. Those who began training at an earlier age showed the largest changes.
Studies have also shown that even short periods of musical training during early childhood can have long-lasting benefits. Participants who received moderate amounts of musical training in their childhood exhibited faster neural responses when tested on their ability to process complex speech sounds, suggesting that even limited training in childhood can preserve sharp processing of speech sounds and increase resilience to age-related decline in hearing.
Musical training has also been found to facilitate the rehabilitation of patients recovering from stroke and brain damage. Some researchers even argue that it may boost speech processing and learning in children with dyslexia and other language impairments. The benefits of musical training persist for many years and protect the brain against the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.
According to Loveday, music stimulates parts of the brain that are unreachable by other activities. This cognitive stimulus has the unique ability to cultivate the brain like nothing else, and the mounting evidence showcasing the enhancement of skills such as language and working memory, associated with musical training, is resolute.
It seems that learning a musical instrument is one of the most effective types of brain training available. Musical training can lead to alterations in both structural and functional aspects of the brain, depending on the instrument being learned and the intensity with which one practices. It is a remarkable example of how lifelong experiences can mold the brain, adapting to the distinctive lifestyle of the individual.
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