These days you’ll find a plethora of apps and websites out there that say they can “train your brain” and improve mental abilities with various games. However, it turns out these tools may not live up to the hype.
In October 2014, a group of leading neuroscientists and psychologists penned an opened letter calling claims about the efficacy of brain games “frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.” And early in 2016, Luminosity, a web-based application that offers games for brain training, was fined $2 million and forced to refund customers who were duped into believing the company’s products could boost mental performance and slow the age-related decline of mental abilities. Another review found that there is little evidence showing that this training improves everyday cognitive abilities.
But there is good news. While brain training games may not improve cognitive performance, something else widely available can: music. Again and again, research has shown that learning to play a musical instrument benefits both children and adults, and it might even help patients recovering from brain injuries. According to neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster, music “stimulates the brain in a very powerful way, because of our emotional connection with it.”
Playing a musical instrument requires the use of your vision, hearing, touch, and fine movements, and learning to play an instrument can produce long-term changes in your brain. Early studies showed major differences in the brain structure of musicians vs. non-musicians of the same age; for instance, the corpus callosum, a large bundle of nerve fibers which connects the two sides of the brain, is much larger in musicians.
Later longitudinal studies have shown that kids who do 14 months of musical training exhibit significant structural and functional brain changes compared to kids without musical training. These studies indicate that learning to play an instrument both increases the volume of gray matter in various regions of the brain and strengthens the connections between the various regions. Other studies have shown that musical training boosts spatial reasoning, verbal memory, and literacy skills; professional musicians routinely outperform non-musicians in these areas.
Research has also show that the extent to which musicians’ brains change is closely related to the age at which they started their musical training and the intensity of the training. The younger the musicians started training, the more significant the changes were. It’s been found that musical training is especially effective if started before the age of seven.
But even brief periods of training in early childhood can have an impact. In one study from 2013, researchers recruited 44 adults and divided them into three groups based on how much musical training they had received as children; one group had no training, one had between one and three years of lessons, and one had moderate musical training, defined as four to 14 years of training. Researchers played recordings of complex speech sounds and measured the timing participants’ neural responses. Those who had received between four and 14 years of musical training had the fastest response times. This suggests that even short periods of musical training in childhood can mean sharper processing of speech sounds and a bigger buffer against age-related hearing decline later in life.
The research is clear: musical training, particularly in childhood, can have a significant impact on brain structure and functioning. And the earlier you train, the longer you train, and the more intensely you train, the greater the effects. Forget the apps and websites and start learning a musical instrument!