Brains Hardwired By Music?

Brains, Music  and Learning (Web Weaver Clip Art 2009)

Brains, Music and Learning (Web Weaver Clip Art 2009)

By Amy Price PhD

In 2007 colleagues and I conducted a 42 participant study as part of a research school experiment on working memory and cognitive loading. We explored using music as a strategic intervention to alter working memory loads. The premise was music could aid in more effectual encoding to increase learning potential.  As we learn extraneous or intrinsic cognitive load is invoked. Extraneous working memory loading is experienced by learners as they interact with instructional materials. Intrinsic cognitive load is the inherent level of difficulty associated with instructional materials (Chandler and Sweller 1991). More learning cues such as using pictures as well as words, learning with a song or even allowing student’s hands on instruction helps decrease this load. The more unnecessary information it takes to deliver your point the more extraneous cognitive load is produced. This is where a picture is worth a thousand words!  (Ayres 2006) states that when intrinsic or extraneous cognitive load is high, working memory is overloaded and learning is adversely affected.

This process happens as we learn new skills that we later do with some automaticity such as driving, riding a bike, learning a musical instrument or even doing algebra. The forming of efficient categorization and schemas is called germane load (Paas et al 2003, Sweller et al 1998).  

We considered that since music aids in efficient categorization perhaps learning and music together could decrease cognitive loading and increase germane ability by lightening the load. We tested this by having participants first listen to music designed to entrain concentration. According to (Doman 2007) entrainment can occur in as little as one minute. Music with specific timbres and rhythmic structure has demonstrated an increase in effectual category formation, (Ostrander1994, Rose1997) and can aid visual spatial perception, (Ruvenshteyn and Parrino, 2005) (Orel, 2006) Music is shown to aid in hemispheric transfer or communication between both halves of the brain (Taut et al 2005). We felt participants in the auditory condition would increase germane load and decrease extraneous load. The decrease in extraneous load is expected because of the neuronal changes evoked by entrainment (Pouliot 1998) (Carter and Russel 1992)

 What were our findings? Approximately 50% of our participants immediately increased their ability to sustain cognitive load by 150%. The other 50% decreased in this ability however many of these reported greater clarity of thought later in the day and improved their testing scores considerably. The lesson we learned from this is that for music to be effective at least for ½ the population consistency is the key. Many individuals need a consolidation period where learning is categorized and music is internalized.  

In fact, there are long term benefits of listening to music, notes Dan Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music.

“Music listening enhances or changes certain neural circuits, including the density of dendritic connections in the primary auditory cortex…The front portion of the corpus callosum—the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—is significantly larger in musicians than non-musicians, and particularly for musicians who began their training early…Musicians tend to have larger cerebellums than non-musicians, and an increased concentration of grey matter…responsible for information processing.” In the end music is like exercise, starting later in life is better than not starting at all and may confer neuroprotective benefits…but that is another study!

 

References

Ayres, P.L (2006) “Impact of reducing intrinsic cognitive load on learning in a mathematical domain”, Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol.20, 99 287-298.

Carter, J & Russell H. (2002) A Pilot Investigation of Auditory and Visual Entrainment of Brain Wave Activity in Learning Disabled Boys Stanford University USA

Chandler, P. & Sweller, J. (1991). “Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction”. Cognition and Instruction 8 (4): 293–332. doi:10.1207/s1532690xci0804_2. 

Clark, R., Nguyen, F., and Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco: Pfeiffer. ISBN 0-7879-7728-4. 

Conway, A. R. A., Jarrold, C., Kane, M. J., Miyake, A., & Towse, J. N. (Eds.). (2007). Variation in working memory. New York: Oxford University Press

Doman A, (2007) ABT conference Miami Fl. Advanced Brain Technology 5748 South Adams Avenue Parkway Ogden, Utah 84405, USA

Naish, P. 2005, Perceptual Processes ‘Attention’, Cognitive Psychology, Braisby and Gellatly, (eds) Open University in association with Oxford University Press UK

Orel, P., (2006) ‘Music Helps Students Retain Math’, Rutger’s Focus, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Jersey USA

Ostrander, S., Shroeder, L., and Ostrander, L. (1994) Super Learning New York, Delacorte Press, (1994)

Paas, F. Tuovinen, J., Tabbers, H., and Van Gerven, P., (2003) ‘Cognitive load measurement as a means to advance cognitive load theory’, Educational Psychologist, Vol 38(1), 63-71.

Pike and Edgar (2005) Perceptual Processes ‘Perception’, Cognitive Psychology, Braisby and Gellatly, (eds) Open University in association with Oxford University Press UK

Price A, Kessler R, 2006 “Sparks of Genius Recovered?”, Thinking Pays Boca Raton FL USA

Price A, Kirkpatrick M, Groszek M, “ 2007, Just practise? Or can ergonomic brain instruction or musical entrainment lighten the cognitive load to increase working memory performance and working load stamina?” Open University, Milton Keynes UK

Sweller et al (1988, 1989, 1993) Sweller, J., and Chandler, P., (1994) ‘Why some material is difficult to learn’ Cognition and Instruction, vol.12, pp185-233.

 Thaut, M., Peterson D., and McIntosh G. (2005) ‘Temporal Entrainment of Cognitive Functions: Musical Mnemonics Induce Brain Plasticity and Oscillatory Synchrony in Neural Networks Underlying Memory’, The Center for Biomedical Research in Music, Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Neuroscience Programs, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523, USA

 Tomatis, A. (1991) The Conscious Ear, Station Hill Press, Paris, (1991)

Price A, Kessler R, 2006 “Sparks of Genius Recovered?”, Thinking Pays Boca Raton FL USA

Price A, Kirkpatrick M, Groszek M, “ 2007, Just practise? Or can ergonomic brain instruction or musical entrainment lighten the cognitive load to increase working memory performance and working load stamina?” Open University, Milton Keynes UK

Rose, C. & Nicholl, M. (1997) Accelerating Learning for the 21st Century. New York: Dell Publishing (1997)

Roure, R., et al. (1998) Autonomic Nervous System Responses Correlate with Mental Rehearsal in Volleyball Training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 78(2), 99-108

  Ruvinshteyn M and Parrino L, (2005) Benefits Of Music In The Academic Classroom

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One Response to “Brains Hardwired By Music?”

  1. Jo Kirkpatrick Says:

    I thought Amy had ‘lost it’ when she first suggested this study 3 years ago. I knew very little about musical entrainment, except for what I had read online, which seemed a bit far fetched. How could listening to music affect the brain. Why is the world not run by chamber musicians? I had asked. I have since come to realise that Amy never loses it and ‘The Mozart Effect’ as it is known, is now a well documented phenomenon. In spite of the original results not quite reaching scientific significance, there was an across the board decrease in reaction time that was still fairly convincing.

    The results clearly indicated that if we had given the participants more time training; or if we had used a more sensitive measure, the results would have been far more strongly defined. Amy has since begun plans to explore this and other possibilities that can also stimulate cognitive activity and improve brain function. She is not only researching the potential of music but of many other things, like computer games, learning, as well as new treatments and drugs.


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