I’m currently reading Neuroplasticity by Moheb Costandi (MIT Press 2016), and simultaneously stumbled across this very interesting article by the same author. It turns out that musical training changes brain structure (’cortical plasticity’ or ‘neural malleability’) in ways arguably no other activity can. Admittedly, this research has been available for decades, but only recently seems to be receiving more mainstream publicity. One can instantly think of the many therapeutic and rehabilitative applications that such research potentially offers. For example, ‘learning to play a musical instrument in childhood protects the brain against the development of cognitive impairment and dementia.’ Hopefully the latter doesn’t give too much license to an extreme ‘tiger mother’ phenomenon.
The philosophical implications for ‘hylomorphism’, i.e., the unity of body and soul, are just as intriguing.
‘Unlike commercial brain training products, which only improve performance on the skills involved, musical training has what psychologists refer to as transfer effects – in other words, learning to play a musical instrument seems to have a far broader effect on the brain and mental function, and improves other abilities that are seemingly unrelated.
“Music reaches parts of the brain that other things can’t,” says Loveday. “It’s a strong cognitive stimulus that grows the brain in a way that nothing else does, and the evidence that musical training enhances things like working memory and language is very robust.”
Learning to play a musical instrument, then, seems to be one of the most effective forms of brain training there is. Musical training can induce various structural and functional changes in the brain, depending on which instrument is being learned, and the intensity of the training regime. It’s an example of how dramatically life-long experience can alter the brain so that it becomes adapted to the idiosyncrasies of its owner’s lifestyle.’