Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Musical Training, Brain Structures, and Behaviour

Hyde, K. L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A. & Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical Training Shapes Structural Brain Development. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(10), 3019-3025. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5118-08.2009.

The purpose of this study was to examine brain structure changes and correlated musical behaviour in two groups of children. The "instrumental" group was made up of 15 children (mean age: 6.32 years) and the "control" group was made up of 16 children (mean age: 5.9 years). For 15 months, the instrumental group received half-hour weekly keyboard lessons while the control group participated in a weekly 40-minute group music class that involved singing and playing with drums and bells. Before and after the 15-month period, MRI scans were done and each child was given music behaviour tests. These tests consisted of

Near-transfer measures (These test skills that are directly related to music participation.)
a) a 4-finger motor skill test for each hand
b) a melodic and rhythmic discrimination test

Far-transfer measures (These test skills that are further removed from music participation.)
a) object assembly test
b) block design test
c) vocabulary test

Researchers found that the students in the instrumental group experienced greater structural changes in motor-related areas of the brain. This was correlated and predicted by improvements in left-hand motor skills. Changes in the right auditory area were correlated and predicted by improvements in melodic/rhythmic discrimination. No advantage was gained by the instrumental group over the control group in the far-transfer skills. These findings support results of tests on musicians and non-musicians.

They also found structural changes in the brain outside of the motor and auditory areas. Researchers were particularly excited by changes observed in the left posterior pericingulate region, since this is in the vicinity of Brodmann area 31, which is involved in the integration of visual information and the limbic system. Musical notation and its emotional interpretation is an example of this type of integration.

In reading this study, I did wonder, "So what if the brain can change in just 15 months?" Will this make a difference in how I do things now? In what I choose to do? How I choose to teach?

To be honest, I don’t know, but perhaps it ought to. There are already many reasons, not specifically conceived as brain development reasons, why I make decisions as it is. In particular, my reasons for choosing to focus on music-related issues did not come from a consideration of how it would change or help my brain, per se. But, admittedly, since the brain controls everything, I guess indirectly, this is what I’ve done. More precisely, it seems to me that music provides access to a part of people that other means don’t seem to get at the same way.

Indeed, this study shows that music changes the brain, even in areas that are just beyond the direct music/motor-related centres. In reading both Jourdain’s Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy and Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, there appears to be much evidence that music involves the whole body, the whole brain. Even without such proof, I think most of us have experienced this.

What significance does that have? It seems to me, that development of the whole person in many different ways allows for a more varied way of thinking, and maybe a different way of looking at day-to-day problems---personally, socially, globally. Not that by listening to or playing music, we can look at, say, environmental issues, and solve them “musically”, but by developing as many parts of ourselves, our brains, as we can, we’ll have that many more tools at our disposal for collaborating on issues.*

It therefore interested me to see that the Toronto Star ran a series of articles about brain science-informed education: as I had wondered for some time whether knowing what's happening in the brain could someday allow me to teach and play the piano more effectively by targeting areas known to be developed by certain tasks. A new movement is beginning to look at exactly how neuroscience can improve education.

An instinctive concern of mine in reading the summary of this study is that focus on brain structure and resultant behaviour may end up sidestepping other important factors in the learning environment. In this study, for example, factors such as teacher experience and interaction with each of the groups was not mentioned; neither was interaction between students in the group class. Perhaps the instrumental group developed more, in part, because of the one-on-one attention that was given.

Nonetheless, the idea that the brain remains malleable even into old age is such a remarkable discovery. It's a liberating thought that change is possible at every stage. It gives me a sense of motivation---there's always a reason to learn and to teach. The application of neuroscience to education, if done in dialogue and collaboration with those who influence and are influenced by the field---philosophers, educators, parents, students, etc.---, seems another important tool in improving the field.

*I should note that though far-transfer skill did not seem greatly affected in this study, the authors surmise that this may have been due to a) too short a duration for the effects to be seen, b) varying intensities of keyboard practice among the children), c) perhaps the sample being too small.

1 comment:

Liana Henkel said...

This is an interesting study for its teaching implications. I am not really surprised at the results because the instrumental group/keyboardists would have, in the 15 month study period, focused directly on improving the very skills that the test results were hoping to prove. I can see how a ‘4-finger motor skill test’ would be better after 15 months of keyboarding lessons although I am a little surprised about the melodic/rhythmic discrimination test result but then again, I am not sure what measurement “greater” actually correlates to – how much greater were the instrumentalists over the other musical group. The far-transfer measures result is curious but I don’t know enough about current research in the correlations of the tests and specific/general music learning.

I wondered like you did about the learning environment of the two groups. How much focused 'result'-driven learning was there versus play-type learning? Individual or group? This isn’t to say that both aren’t important but it would likely affect the dynamics of the learning. Was it the same teacher with the same general teaching philosophy and methods? The instrumentalists were also a bit older. Although 6-7 months doesn’t mean much to adults' development, it may be more relevant in these young children’s development. I would have thought that the music class playing bells, drums, singing etc. would have produced greater or at least equal melodic and rhythmic discrimination, but perhaps it depends on multiple variables such as the ones we discussed?

I followed the link your provided on the Atkinson Series and read the article "Cuban system leads the way". What I found very interesting in this article was that they addressed the attitudes of learners and teachers.

I liked the comments about how our brains are constantly developing and intelligence is not fixed. Just because you don’t do well on a test doesn’t mean that you are stupid (I really dislike that word when children use it to describe themselves or others), but just that you “haven’t mastered that part yet”. Learners and teachers can’t use this as an excuse to give up, but instead to keep working at it. And if you do well on a test and have mastered the test material, maybe it is time to work on tougher concepts, the idea being to keep learning.

The study that psychologist Carol Dweck performed involved the attitudes of adults and learning. In her study, some adult learners only tackled the difficult questions when they were being assessed, while others who were interested in improving their ability, as opposed to those who were out to “prove their ability” tried them all.

Both of these discussions highlighted in "Cuban system leads the way" remind me of an article from the journal "Best of Educational Leadership 2007-2008" titled "The perils and promise of praise". I can’t find the article right now to refer to instead of my memory as the reference of it … but the basic gist of it is that teachers need to be careful about doling out praise. The children can start to define themselves as ‘stupid’ or ‘smart’ and complete their work for the ‘praise’ instead of striving to learn. Also, when the material being taught becomes more challenging, it is actually the children who previously struggled that are more successful in tackling the harder questions. They understand that they can learn and achieve because the brain is a working growing ‘muscle’ while those who didn’t have to work as hard, and the praise came easily, can have problems with the material and other issues such as self-esteem when achievement and the accompanying praise doesn’t happen as easily and readily as before.