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Musical Training Changes the Brain

May 12, 2014 11:40 AM EDT
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Learning how to play the guitar may do more than just impress the ladies. It may actually be changing how your brain works. Even brief musical instruction may drastically change the blood-flow patterns of the brain, new study suggests.

The results of this study were presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Birmingham, England.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool reportedly set out to see what was physiologically different in brain activity between musicians and non-musicians. This work was supposedly inspired by past research, which suggests that many musicians think of music much like they would a language, with various sounds making up a greater whole that carries meaning.

Comparing the brain patterns of 14 musicians verses nine non-musicians, researchers asked the study participants to perform a series of tasks that were either musical or word-related in nature.

Observation quickly showed the researchers that while blood flow remained relatively consistent in the musicians despite performing different tasks, blood flow was hugely different in non musicians when they were doing word-related tasks compared to when they were performing musical tasks.

In a follow-up study, the researchers took the same nine non-musician subjects and gave them a brief half hour of musical training. Interestingly, following this training, blood flow had dramatically shifted in their brains, now working the same way during both tasks presented to them. Even more surprising, the researchers found that the trained subjects now displayed brain blood-flow remarkably similar to that of the musical subjects when performing either task.

During her presentation, Amy Spray of the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool, said that these results could imply that how the brain tackles music physiologically is determined by a matter of perspective, where an understanding that music and language function similarly determine how the brain tackles music-related tasks.

"[W]e can assume that musical training results in a rapid change in the cognitive mechanisms utilized for music perception and these shared mechanisms are usually employed for language," Spray said.

The results of this study were presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Birmingham, England on May 8.

As these findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it is suggested that they be viewed as preliminary findings until the time of publication.

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