“Excruciatingly hard but immensely satisfying.” When a friend asked me what it was like to begin playing the cello in my sixties, that’s what I said. I might have added that, like most things worth doing, it’s complicated. Learning to play a musical instrument, writing a story, or shaping clay on a potter’s wheel are all brain stimulating activities providing novelty, complexity and problem solving, a crucial triad of ingredients for maintaining brain fitness while also checking the boxes for fun, meaningfulness, and satisfaction. I thought about taking up the cello, an instrument I’d loved for decades, after finding evidence that the older brain is capable of learning to play a musical instrument. I realized that I could combine my wish to make music with the desire to keep stimulating my brain.
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My quest was launched when I found Biana Kovic, a New York City cello teacher whose documentary, Virtuoso, chronicled Matty, an 89-year old who agreed to take lessons in exchange for participating in the film. If Matty could do it, so could I. Playing the cello involves eye-hand coordination, timing, differentiation of sounds, and the pure physicality of carrying around a near body-sized wooden object, daunting for a beginner. Focusing despite distraction and learning to read music require determination. The very complexity of these efforts stimulates neuronal production. I was up for the challenge. Beyond the aesthetic benefits -- the delightful sound of drawing the bow across a string and producing a deep, resonating sound (when I hit the right note) -- I also knew as a psychologist reviewing the latest neuroscience literature, that the fine arts, and particularly music can enhance cognitive functioning.
What happens in the brain of someone playing a musical instrument? For the first time in human history we can answer that question. Thanks to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), 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 activation in the pre-frontal and frontal cortex. This is a very good thing: 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. There is mounting evidence that playing music, and I don’t mean on your iPhone, iPad or audio system, can delay or reverse the onset of normal age-related memory problems in older adults. Not only is neuron production increased, but connections between these cells called dendrites continue to multiply. Instead of the decline we imagined we might need to deal with, we can expect cognitive strengthening!
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 a hundred 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. When I thought about playing the cello I said to myself, “if not now, then when?” And I’m so grateful I did.
Francine Toder, Ph.D., author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty is an emeritus faculty member at California State University Sacramento. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area and practices the cello daily. Images: Cello illustration Credit: Topic Photo Agency/Corbis Portrait of Francine Toder Credit: J. Hustein