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Playing Music Can Make You Smarter

It’s just science

by Francine Toder

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One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.

Bob Marley

Modern medical scans paint a vivid picture of your brain on music. Source: Dan McCoy - Rainbow/Getty Images,

What happens in the brain of someone playing a musical instrument? For the first time we can answer that question. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that directly measures the blood flow in the brain, you can see exactly which areas get active when someone plays a musical instrument. Remarkably, findings from recent research indicate that multiple parts of the brain light up, particularly in the prefrontal and frontal cortex. Doctors say that the more sites affected, the better it is for cognitive functioning. 

After midlife, both sides of the brain become better integrated, more interdependent and functionally intertwined, further enhancing brain performance. This process is known as bilaterality.

Mounting evidence shows that playing music can delay or reverse the onset of normal, age-related memory problems in older adults. Not only is neuron production increased, but connections between cells called dendrites continue to multiply. Instead of the decline we imagined we might need to deal with, we can expect cognitive strengthening.

Do you need to pick up an instrument? Test your memory now and find out. 

Taking up a musical instrument isn’t the only path to a brighter brain. There is evidence that other fine arts have similar value. For example, studies show that older adults engaging in theater, whether improvised or scripted, show signs of brain stimulation that improves working memory and boosts cognitive functioning. Senior theater companies have mushroomed in the past decade, growing from under 100 to almost 800 nationwide. And while an enhanced sense of community, physical activity and playfulness are good reasons to learn to act, the cognitive bonus is icing on the cake.