Monday, November 10, 2014

Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians Jennifer Zuk, Christopher Benjamin, Arnold Kenyon, Nadine Gaab


Zuk, J., Benjamin, C., Kenyon, A., & Gaah, N. (2014, June). Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Executive Functioning in Musicians and Non-Musicians. PLOS One .


Researchers from Boston, Massachusetts have published a new study that finds a correlation between music training and improved skills in executive functions which are defined as high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan and adjust to changing mental demands (Berglund, 2014).  In their study, they tested musically trained adults and children against those that were carefully screened to have no music background outside of the general school curriculum.

To measure executive function, the researchers tested the adults using the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System, which included subtests on trail making (visual scanning, numeric and alphabetic sequencing, motor speed, and cognitive flexibility), verbal fluency (letter and category fluency), color-word inference (inhibition control) and design fluency (connecting dots, timed).  Children completed their own version of all but the latter in order to maximize their attention span.

The most significant results that the researchers found were that children and adults who had extensive musical training showed enhanced executive function in cognitive flexibility, working memory and processing speed.  Because skills in executive function have proven to be highly correlated with academic skills, the researchers stated that this could mean musical training might improve certain areas of academics.  This led them to conclude that replacing music programs in our schools with enhanced instruction in literacy and math in order to boost standardized test scores may actually be detrimental to skills in other cognitive areas. 


I question whether or not these findings are indeed significant based on the fact that they have not actually proven that music training was the factor that led to enhanced executive function.  Whether or not the participants in music had executive functioning abilities before they were trained in music remains to be seen.  The researchers did note that children with high executive functioning abilities could be more likely to stick with music over the long term.  I believe that this is true, that enhanced executive function is what keeps kids interested in music and why they are drawn to it in the first place. Therefore as much as I would like this to be true, I would like to be a little more convinced that these musicians have higher abilities in executive function because of their training in music.

Despite this potential flaw in the study, it seemed to be very well executed.  The results that the researchers found were fairly consistent to other studies that have been done when comparing musicians to non-musicians and I really think that this is not something our education system should ignore. I do believe that music can have a significant influence on our brain activity and I truly feel that it holds a significant spot in our school systems because of this.  If anything, music provides students with a different way of experiencing language and communication in school and gives them an opportunity to stimulate their brain in a unique way.  Because of this, I believe that cutting music programs would leave a huge hole in our education system.  

1 comment:

Stacey U. said...

Something that I immediately wondered about is one’s innate musicality, whether it is measurable, and whether it would somehow affect the outcomes of studies such as Zuk et al.’s (2014). The findings are rather interesting, essentially proving that people with musical training exhibit said “enhanced executive function”. The particular areas of this strength (cognitive flexibility, working memory, and processing speed) are not surprising since these are the skills one needs in order to successfully learn to play an instrument and easily read music. The extension of the results into academic subjects, however, seems to be a stretch. Yes, certain skills in executive function are also correlated with academic performance, but what is the nature of their causality? As far as I understand, “executive function” is needed to do almost anything at an advanced level, and to do it well. Notably, there is also no known correlation between being a musician/composer and scoring high on other measures of intelligence (like IQ)—if someone had shown that people with extensive musical training also tend to be strong mathematicians or writers, then we could consider the idea of causality between the two.

You raise an interesting point about whether people exhibited “enhanced executive function” as a result of musical training, or in spite of it. There may also be other less obvious variables. For example, it might not have been the musical training per se that had given these people “enhanced executive function,” but perhaps they had adopted a healthier work ethic in order to master their craft, and being more hard-working had made them excel in other regions.