Studying a musical instrument improves development of the brain

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Albert Einstein with his violin.

This study should come as no surprise to most, and it confirms what people already know: exercising the brain improves it. Apparently the people that carried out the study wanted to confirm whether the difference between musicians' brains and those of regular people was nature or nurture (that is, whether they were born that way or whether the musical training is what changes the brain) and the answer is that most of it is nurture. Apparently even most musical geniuses weren't actually as extraordinary (by birth) as we thought, and also developed their skills through a ton of practice. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers that even a genius like Mozart required quite a bit of practice to achieve his full potential, and that his early works that we hear so much about were often just rewrites of other pieces and many had the help of his father (I don't have this book of his so I don't remember exactly how he put it). He was certainly very talented, but he didn't just pick up an instrument one day and start composing sonatas.

The article also mentions something else that I've written on before, that skills one acquires through training actually apply to a surprisingly small area, and bring about almost no benefit in unrelated areas. That is, a chess master won't necessarily have any more insight into politics or another field than anyone else simply by virtue of being good at chess.
At the end of the training period, the musicians also outperformed the others at specific tasks related to manual dexterity and discrimination of sounds. But the two groups were matched on more distantly related skills such as arithmetic. Schlaug says that the same pupils are being followed in case it takes longer for these more "distant" skills to emerge.
This is why it's always a good idea to challenge yourself by learning entirely new fields. One question I'm very interested in finding the answer to is what effects there are on the brain of a very broad field of specialization - learning a number of completely unrelated fields to proficiency (and maybe one or two to mastery) and whether this combination of a number of fields can contribute to understanding of seemingly unrelated fields without having any previous study or training in them.

If so, it may be because studying a large number of fields might increase the overall curiosity in a person and make them more apt to pay attention to subjects they might not otherwise notice, so that would have to be taken into account when doing a study as this might be the reason rather than due to a rewiring of the brain that somehow lets people understand fields they haven't even formally studied.


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