Here is a report on a piece of neuro-research from Livescience, or YahooNews or whatever, that was brought to my attention by a friend with 'Is this what they pay neuroscience labs for?'
Playing Music Makes You Smart
Scientists have uncovered the first concrete evidence that playing music can significantly enhance the brain and sharpen hearing for all kinds of sounds, including speech.
"Experience with music appears to help with many other things in life, potentially transferring to activities like reading or picking up nuances in tones of voices or hearing sounds in a noisy classroom better," researcher Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, told LiveScience.
These new findings highlight the importance of music classes, she said.
"Even with their attention focused on the movie and though the sounds had no linguistic or musical meaning for them, we found our musically trained subjects were far better at tracking the three different tones than the non-musicians," said neuroscientist Patrick Wong at Northwestern University.
Wong emphasized these results were seen "in more or less everyday people. You don't have to be a top musician to find these kinds of effects."
Surprisingly, the researchers found these changes occurred in the brainstem, the ancient part of the brain responsible for controlling automatic, critical body functions such as breathing and heartbeat.
Music was thought largely to be the province of the cerebral cortex, where higher brain functions such as reasoning, thought and language are seated. The brainstem was thought to be unchangeable and uninvolved in the complex processes linked with music.
"These results show us how malleable to experience the brainstem actually is," Kraus said of the findings detailed in the April issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience. "We think music engages higher level functions in the cortex that actually tune the brainstem."
Nature Neuroscience is one of the most quality-selective journals in the field. I am confident that these guys havent been concerned at all whether music makes one smart or not. From everything that is written above, me thinks the actual important conclusions of their research probably have been:
Music was thought largely to be the province of the cerebral cortex, where higher brain functions such as reasoning, thought and language are seated. The brainstem was thought to be unchangeable and uninvolved in the complex processes... "These results show us how malleable to experience the brainstem actually is," ...
One day a Journalist came about and said, 'Ok, i tried to read all the conclusions section of your new article in Nature Neuroscience but it all looks so boring that I fell asleep! Please tell me something that will be interesting to the average yahoo reader? I need to entertain the wide public, you know, not just geeks like yourselves!'
- Well, ok. For example it is quite interesting that brainstem is not only involved in hardwired body control, breathing, heartbeat, intestine contraction etc. and basic things like flight reflexes, etc. but now it turns out it also demonstrates response to computationally complicated input such as music tones...
- Did you say music? So we could listen to music with our brainstem?
- Well, hmm, not really... Maybe it could mean that very early vertebrates were already able to differentiate sounds before they have yet developed cerebellum or cortex?
However it is more likely that there is some very interesting feedback mechanism between those parts of the brain and the brainstem! You probably know that cortex is involved with sensory input processing and with all cognitive tasks, including reasoning and language. So the feedback mechanism is sending information about whats happening up there, in this case a specific type of sound processing, to the brainstem and it is also able to modulate the brainstem wiring and functional responses with time and repetition! In some sense it is tuning the brainstem to specialise in the skills that an individual needs! [all this is called simply "plasticity" in neurojargon] Neuroscientists didnt suppose before that the brainstem, whose prime role is to take care of the most fundamental funcions of the body, could actually be malleable to experience!
These are a very exciting future directions of research [read a scream "give us money!!"] as these feedback loops are crucial to our understanding how our nervous system processes information!
Do you know for example that for every neuron that sends information from the geniculate nucleus to the primary visual cortex ...sorry, the geniculate nucleaus is like a relay station between the retina and cortex where the first processing of visual input occurs, such as detecting the object boundaries in the picture... so, for every neuron there, there are ten neurons sending information back from cortex!? This means that the brain actually tells to the retinal assemblies what it wants to see and how it likes to see it in the moment! Researchers are still perplexed at what is the significance...
- Wow, wow, wow, put the ball to rest a bit! I got confused! Lets get back to music, do you think listening to music can improve one's performance in daily life?
- Er, well, mmmm, yeah, why not... Music basically exercises your auditory cortex and improves its functions - for example listening to chatter in a noisy room, etc.
It works the other way round too! There is a paper where they counted what percentage of lay and of professional musicians can exactly name a single music note without any other surrounding tones to compare with. I wouldnt remember the exact figures now, but in Europe in both groups it was much less than 50% and in countries with tonal languages such as China it was higher than 50%.
We have also some results where we observe improvement in developmental reading skills of children exposed to music. This suggests that they share a common pattern recognition mechanism beyond the sensory cortices, in the higher cognitive processing levels.
- What would you say about school Music classes?
- Er... what??
- Do you think Music classes in school should be kept or sacked?
- Er, huh, mmm, huh, [gosh, this is gonna turn political now?] I think Music classes are quite nice. If not only because I always enjoyed singing but as you see listening and playing music is potentially related and beneficial to a whole lot of other cognitive abilities...
- Thank you, ma'am. You will see your interview published in LiveScience next week. There we are all pricks. Bye, now!
Next week she is dismayed by the title associated with her name, "Playing Music Makes You Smart!" Her colleagues reassure her, 'Dont be too embarrassed, eventually it happens to everybody. I once also gave an interview to a Journalist - he cut and pasted all my sentences I couldnt recognise it's me, he-he-he!'
Disclaimer: The above scientific explanations might be fictional. :)
I recommend to do your own reading around.
Supplement by Nikola:
ok, I am the university now, with access to journals so I found which is the actual article of that Nina Kraus. Here is the abstract:
Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns.
Wong PC, Skoe E, Russo NM, Dees T, Kraus N.
Music and speech are very cognitively demanding auditory phenomena generally attributed to cortical rather than subcortical circuitry. We examined brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch and found that musicians show more robust and faithful encoding compared with nonmusicians. These results not only implicate a common subcortical manifestation for two presumed cortical functions, but also a possible reciprocity of corticofugal speech and music tuning, providing neurophysiological explanations for musicians' higher language-learning ability.
It is much more sensible than the impression left from that report!
University of Nottingham,