Kids, Language & Brains


Music, Arts and the Brain

More than 30 thousand brain scientists representing the Society for Neuroscience and the International Neuroethics Society attended their recent annual meeting in San Diego where a session entitled "Arts, Music, and the Brain: How the Arts Influence Us from Youth to Maturity" drew a standing room only crowd.  The growing interest in this topic stems from results of improved imaging and sound wave technology which reinforce anecdotal evidence and common sense to demonstrate the arts and music boost cognitive function across social economic class, age, gender and ethnicity.  Four presenters, coming at the topic from different starting points, ended up supporting similar conclusions.  Ping Ho, founder of UCLAArts & Healing demonstrated how something as simple as the rhythms of a drum circle can reduce stress and therefore be very useful in therapy. Using videos of babies smiling happily while swaying to music, Nina Krauss of Northwestern demonstrated how something as invisible as sound can be a powerful force in our lives.  Her team in Chicago found that all the children they tested, no matter their background, responded to music training and then maintained reading scores better.  Author of This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin of McGrill University, cited study after study revealing the benefits of music in brain development, social engagement, learning and aging.  Kenneth Elpus, University of Maryland and not a neuroscientist, used his personal story of leaving high school music teaching to pursue a Ph.D. when his new superintendent decided subsidizing music education in the district was a too costly luxury.  Elphus finds the decreasing access to arts/music education from the primary grades through high school to be a very disturbing trend, especially in the light of all the research proving such a trend is moving in opposition to the evidence. Bill Glovin, "Music and the Arts Promote Healthy Cognitive Function," the Dana Foundation, 11/19/2016.  


Children and Musical Training

With the local classical music station in full fund-raising mode, teachers in area elementary schools hope to benefit from the generosity of listeners who share a commitment to exposing children to the rewards of classical music. Knowing music classes are among the first eliminated when budget cuts are on the table, we need to be more aware of how musical training influences brain growth at this critical period in children's lives. Playing a musical instrument from a young age appears to create new pathways in the brain that process written words and letters and may help children with reading disorders, according to a study in the journal Neuropsychologia. Musicians do benefit cognitively from such training, but it's not yet clear how learning to read music relates to reading words. Experiments in Milan, Italy, involving musicians who began playing music as young children and a control group who couldn't read music revealed some surface differences favoring the musicians, but its was at the level of measuring brain activity with electroencephalograms (EEG) where the advantages for musicians were most pronounced. With language usually a left-brain function and music a right-brain function, researchers were surprised to see both left and right sides of musicians' brains activated by notes and words while in the control group only the left-side of the brain responded to words and only the right-side of the brain responded to notes. It's too early to say with certainty that musical training will help children with reading difficulties, but it looks like a promising avenue for further exploration.  Ann Lukits, "Music Ability Helps Reading," Wall Street Journal, 2/19/2013. 


Our 21st Century Brain

Thanks to the Human Connectome Project (HCP) we are learning more about the human brain than we ever knew before.  Its goal was to build a network map to shed light on the anatomical and functional connectivity within the healthy human brain, as well as produce a body of data to facilitate research into brain disorders.  Imagine, if you can, 90 billion neurons interconnected by 150 trillion synapses.  These give rise to the extraordinary capabilities of human behavior and the amazing diversity of talents among the billions of people populating our earth. Thanks to HCP we've learned a lot but realize more and more how much we still have to learn.  Competitive funding for HCP was responsible for spurring interest among neuroscientists around the world. The overall goal was to map the hundreds of functionally distinct areas, or 'parcels' of the human brain, to understand how these areas are connected, how they contribute to our behavior.  This has been done successfully with extensive sharing of analyzed neuroimaging data.  For example the number of publications now acknowledging use of HCP data currently exceeds 140 and is rapidly growing. It's clear HCP has succeeded in laying a strong foundation for further study of the brain.  Cerebrum, 11/5/2016.