Monday, September 29, 2014

Music Practice and Neural Executive Functions

Zuk, Jennifer, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, and Nadine Gaab. 2014. “Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians.” Edited by Amanda Bruce. PLoS ONE 9 (6): e99868. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099868.

In a recent study, Jennifer Zuk et al. (2014) examined the effects of musical practice on neural executive functioning in children and adults. Executive functions are a group of cognitive processes that support self-regulating behavior and play an important role in working memory, problem solving, and goal-driven behaviors. Additionally, executive functions are important for dynamic activities that require frequent changes in task attentiveness.

Based on numerous previous studies that have shown links between musical training and strong general cognitive skills, the researchers hypothesized that there might be a relationship between music practice and executive function. Although other studies have examined the relationship between musical training and executive function, Zuk et al. note that these studies have produced mixed findings. The inconsistency across these studies is attributed to the lack of carefully selecting control groups of people without any musical training. Other confounding factors are also to blame, such as the socioeconomic divide between musicians and non-musicians.

In an effort to mitigate the inconsistencies of earlier music and executive function studies, the research team carefully selected adults (15 musicians/15 non-musicians) with an average age of 24 years old, and children (15 musically trained/12 non-trained) with an average age of 10 years old. Close attention was paid to physicality, musical training, and socioeconomic demographics, including the current career activities of the adults and parental education among the children. Baseline cognitive abilities were established through a battery of executive function tests including “trail-making,” verbal and design fluency, color-word inference, and coding symbols to numbers.

Among both adults and children, behavioral tests showed that the musically trained scored higher on verbal fluency and coding. Beyond these behavioral tests, the research group (based out of Boston Children’s Hospital) used fMRI to study brain activation in the children in the study. They found heightened activity in the supplementary motor area and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex in children who practiced music. Overall, the findings suggest that there is some correlation between musical practice and the executive functions that are important for learning skills. Nevertheless, research of this kind is troubled by many confounding factors and many open questions linger.

Finding solid evidence that listening to or practicing music might improve cognitive abilities and intelligence has proven difficult. At the same time, empirical proof that links musical training with outcomes of improved intelligence and learning ability is highly desirable for music researchers and music educators. Increasing reliance on standardized testing as a measure of student performance is causing schools to cut arts programs and promote a more reading- and math-heavy curriculum. Zuk et al. argue that these tactics might actually cause other cognitive deficiencies in students.

This growing body of research lays an important foundation for the claim that music can improve cognitive function in both children and adults. However, the relationship between music practice, executive function, academic success and skills, and intelligence is exceedingly complex. Studies with larger sample sizes over longer periods of time are likely to yield more conclusive results. For instance, a study that followed a non-musical group and a musical group in the same school over a period of several years or one that followed adults from a shared demographic over a similar time frame might reveal interesting results. I wonder if there is an optimum amount of music education. Do the payoffs plateau after a certain period? Or is there some amount of daily musical practice that provides optimal results for executive function?

In addition, I would like to see studies that go beyond the relationship between music practice and cognition (or executive function) and instead consider linking the effects of executive function to general wellness. The focus on executive function is a powerful argument for supporting music education programs because it justifies music education by appealing to characteristics that are highly valued in modern society – self-control, cognition, rational thought, and logic. However, I feel that the arts should be supported for all of their benefits, not only the ones that justify music practice to bureaucrats and education administrators.

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