According to what’s been hailed as “the largest investigation of the association between playing a musical instrument and brain development”, kids who are trained in music have better attention spans, a better grip on their emotions, and are less likely to be anxious.
Psychologists have studied the connection between musical training and brain development to find that the hobby can shape a young person’s brain and help them with functions such as emotion processing and focussing attention.
Run by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in the US, the study follows on from research conducted previously by professor of psychiatry and Vermont Centre for Children director, James Hudziak. In previous years, Hudziak had been working with the US National Institutes of Health to complete an MRI study of what normal brain development looks like. His team then used this data to observe the brain development of 232 children aged six to 18.
Children have particularly adaptable brains, and as they grow up, the outer layer of the brain – the cortex – experiences changes in thickness. In an earlier study, Hudziak and his team first discovered that thinning or thickening of specific areas of the cortex can be linked to instances of anxiety or depression, problems with attention span, aggression and other behavioural problems, even in kids who are otherwise perfectly healthy.
More recently, the team decided to see if a ‘positive activity’ – for example, musical training – could influence cortex thickness and mitigate any negative effects.
Publishing in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the team’s findings support a model proposed by Hudziak called the Vermont Family Based Approach. Rather sensibly, the model suggested that everything in a young person’s environment, including their family, friends, teachers, pets, and hobbies, all contribute to their psychological health. And “music is a critical component in my model,” says Hudziak in a press release.
The team found that because learning a musical instrumental calls for control and coordination of very specific movements, the activity alters the motor areas of the brain. But it also controls the changes experienced by areas of the brain that regulate behaviour. For example, it reportedly influences thickness in the part of the cortex that relates to “executive functioning, including working memory, attentional control, as well as organisation and planning for the future,” the team writes.
They also found that a child’s musical background was also correlated to the thickness of the cortex in areas that play a crucial role in emotion processing and inhibitory control.
Referring to the fact that three-quarters of high school students in the US rarely or never take up a hobby in music or the arts, Hudziak says we need to make an effort to make these activities more attractive to young people.
“Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results,” the team writes, “underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood.”