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Learning and Memory

Inside a Musician’s Brain

Supporting Publication:  Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance

I came across an article today that I thought would be interesting to any musicians out there that might be following the blog. Researchers in personality and social psychology claim that people such as world-class athletes, top-level managers of large business, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation all share similar traits. These three seemingly different groups of people share valuable traits such as an active interest in learning, a calm and playful nature, and a disposition to consider the “whole picture” over individual details.

Primary Auditory Cortex, located on the Temporal Lobe and responsible for processing sound.

So what exactly does this information have to do with musicians?  You guessed it… new research suggests that musicians’ brains are also wired in a unique way that allows them to function in a similar manner to that of the Buddha, Donald Trump, and Aaron Rodgers.

Frederick Travis (United States), Harald Harung (Norway), and Yvonne Lagrosen (Sweden) are three researchers that devote their time to studying “high mind brain development.”  High mind brain development is considered a necessary process if someone is to become really good at a specific task, whether it be throwing a football or banging out Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird solo flawlessly on the guitar.  You may wonder though, how exactly can high mind brain development be measured?

Electroencephalography, or EEG, has proven to be a very useful technique for this measurement.  Scientists usually use EEGs in order to recognize patterns of electrical activity in the brain that correspond to the thoughts or actions of a person in a specific moment of time.

Travis, Harung, and Lagrosen’s use of EEG revealed that people with high mind brain development exhibit similar unique patterns of electrical activity.  More specifically, electrical activity at a certain frequency termed “alpha waves”, dominates over other frequencies.

Richard Davidson uses EEG with Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

This is significant because alpha waves are attributed to the ability of a person to put together individual details presented in the environment so that we can understand “the whole picture.”  Our brains constantly perform this task throughout the day, however, some are apparently better at it than others.

Travis, Harung, and Lagrosen’s use of EEG revealed that musicians, like other high mind brain development individuals, have well-coordinated frontal lobes and that their brains also use brain resources more economically.  A coordinated frontal lobe is extremely important because the frontal lobe of the brain is what we use to perform higher brain functions such as planning and logical thinking.  Using brain resources more economically entails having a relaxed and patient manner until a situation arises that may require the brain to operate in a more alert and functional way.

You may be wondering how and why a musician’s habits can create a brain that exhibits such a highly functioning cognitive capacity.  All good musicians have talent, but talent alone does not make someone a good musician.   It is instead practice that makes a person a good musician.  Several studies have shown that the amount of practice that a person undergoes is directly correlated to the abilities of that person to be a successful musician (in most cases…Yes, I have heard of Mozart…).

Practice makes perfect because it is simply how our brains are wired to learn.  Through a repeated experience, neural circuits develop and strengthen the familiarity of this experience and this process accommodates the automatic flow of behavior that we observe when Lynyrd Skynyrd effortlessly plays Free Bird.

The technical term for this phenomenon is called neuroplasticity and it is described as the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the course of a person’s life. Neuroplasticity is not something to ponder lightly because everything that we do, how we engage our minds or our bodies, changes the way that millions of neurons communicate with each other in our brain.  If you want a higher functioning frontal lobe or even a brain that uses it’s resources more economically, I would suggest picking back up that instrument that you abandoned after graduating high school.  Or if you never had the opportunity to learn to play an instrument like me, it’s never too late to pick one up and have a go.  I have been neglecting my violin lately but I think this post is exactly what I needed to guilt myself
into playing more often…



About bdklassen

My interest in psychology and neuroscience has brought me to the blogging world where I hope to share some of the awesome science research that major news sources such as CNN and ABC News often overlook.


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