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The brain’s “full body workout”

How music affects the brain

Having trouble readjusting to a school schedule? It may be time to pick up a musical instrument. For centuries, the puzzle of the human brain has only been observed from a behavioral standpoint or in postmortem dissection. But in recent decades, the development of brain monitoring technology has skyrocketed observable knowledge.

A TED Talk by Anita Collins described exactly what was going on in the brain in real time using FMRI machines and PET scanners. These observations show that during activities like reading or solving a math problem, a single corresponding area of the brain will light up. But when observing someone while listening to music, multiple areas of the brain light up at once to break apart qualities like rhythmic meter and melody and put them back together for an emotionally-driven musical experience.

But the activity while listening to music was a fraction to that of the brain while playing an instrument. As the TED Talk described, “It’s the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout.”

The neuroscientists observing musicians’ brains discovered diverse activity as they processed “different information in intricate, interrelated, and astonishingly fast sequences.”

Playing a musical instrument engages “practically every area of the brain at once” especially the motor, visual, and auditory cortices—located across both hemispheres of the brain.

This combination of creative implementation and fine motor skills activates a neural connection between the two brain hemispheres in a way that increases the volume and activity of the thick band of nerve fibers connecting them—known as the corpus callosum. This streamlines faster and more diverse routes of neural activity between the two hemispheres of the brain, and like with any muscle being exercised, repeated and structured musical practice strengthens these functions of the brain. This can lead to benefits in other activities, both academic and social.

Among these shown benefits were—due to music’s unique combination of practical and emotional content—higher levels in the brain’s executive function, “a category of interlinked tasks that includes planning, strategizing, and attention to detail,” as Collins’ study described, which includes analyzing in both cognitive and emotional lights.

Another overlapping impact is on the brain’s memory system. Studied musicians did, in fact, show quicker and more efficient memory functions in recollection, storing, and creation. This was because they assigned multiple “tags” to a memory, whether that be driven by context, emotion, or auditory circumstance, “like a good internet search engine,” as put in the Talk.

Further studies have been made to isolate music’s impact on the brain over other activities like sports and more artistic tasks like painting—as well as biological influences. But so far, research is pointing to an undeniable singularity in musical practice’s impact on the brain.      

The research is still fairly new, but nearly every emerging study shows an easily observable pattern between musical practice and enhanced brain functions. So, it may be time to put down the calculus homework and start plucking away at that guitar collecting dust under the bed.

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