The multimillion dollar brain training industry is under attack. In October 2014, a group of over 100 eminent neuroscientists and psychologists wrote an open letter warning that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading”. Earlier this year, industry giant Lumosity was fined $2m, and ordered to refund thousands of customers who were duped by false claims that the company’s products improve general mental abilities and slow the progression of age-related decline in mental abilities. And a recent review examining studies purporting to show the benefits of such products found “little evidence … that training improves improves everyday cognitive performance”.
While brain training games and apps may not live up to their hype, it is well established that certain other activities and lifestyle choices can have neurological benefits that promote overall brain health and may help to keep the mind sharp as we get older. One of these is musical training. Research shows that learning to play a musical instrument is beneficial for children and adults alike, and may even be helpful to patients recovering from brain injuries.
“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 is a rich and complex experience that involves integrating information from the senses of vision, hearing, and touch, as well as fine movements, and learning to do so can induce long-lasting changes in the brain. Professional musicians are highly skilled performers who spend years training, and they provide a natural laboratory in which neuroscientists can study how such changes – referred to as experience-dependent plasticity – occur across their lifespan.
Changes in brain structure
Early brain scanning studies revealed significant differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians of the same age. For example, the corpus callosum, a massive bundle of nerve fibres connecting the two sides of the brain, is significantly larger in musicians. The brain areas involved in movement, hearing, and visuo-spatial abilities also appear to be larger in professional keyboard players. And, the area devoted to processing touch sensations from the left hand is increased in violinists.