An Under-Appreciated Way To Improve Brain Health.
Can training your ear reverse brain aging?
An Under-Appreciated Way To Improve Brain Health.
Childhood is a time of massive cognitive stimulation. This is in part a product of culture, given that we front-load much of education and skill learning in early life.
But there's a large biological component as well. Childhood is the time when our brain develops. At birth, our cerebral cortex - the engine of our cognition - is just raw, uncommitted processing power. Roughly 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion synapses waiting to be trained so that we can learn to walk, talk, socialize, throw darts, knit sweaters, write poetry, and create the largest library of cat videos in the universe. Building a big brain with all of these amazing abilities is why we have the longest childhood in the animal kingdom.
Much of that developmental project is devoted to the creation of high-level perceptual abilities. As soon as our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin make first contact with the outside world, our cortex gets busy building the circuitry that allows us to make sense of all that incoming information. It’s these networks that ultimately confer our ability to effortlessly label the sights and sounds of the world around us (to me, what we're ultimately able to identify through nothing more than photons crashing against our retina or sound waves bouncing off our eardrums is nothing short of magic).
This includes our ability to decode and comprehend the sounds of speech. Understanding language wouldn't be possible without the ability to perform detailed auditory discrimination on the rapid-fire sounds emitted from the lips of other humans.
The creation of these staggeringly complex perceptual abilities alone provides us with continuous whole brain stimulation for much of early life. Until it doesn't.
Again, the eventual maturation of these perceptual systems is one of several reasons why cognitive stimulation tends to drop considerably after early life. Which, as I've discussed elsewhere, appears to drive the decline in cognitive function with age.
So how can we provide this critical missing kind of cognitive stimulation?
While I certainly don’t have all the answers here - and it’s area we need to explore much further - it is a reason I’m such a strong advocate of learning to play a musical instrument for cognitive stimulation.
Learning the complex movements required to make music not only requires the creation of myriad new motor programs, but also the creation of complex proprioceptive networks for the ongoing monitoring of our hands and limbs.
Furthermore, learning to play music by ear requires the development of an entire system of complex auditory skills and the neural networks that support them.
The “Playing By Ear” Myth
Growing up, I was under the mistaken impression that being able to play music “by ear” was an innate gift bestowed upon a select few. If Mozart sonatas didn’t fall out of your fingers the first time you sat down at the piano, then you didn’t have the gift.
And if you weren’t one of the chosen, your only option for learning to play was to learn to read music. You had to use your eyes, not your ears, to guide your music-making movements.
I now recognize how ridiculous this is on many levels, but the innate talent myth was strong in those days (and it’s still putting up quite a fight).
By now, you’ve probably heard (maybe from me!) that the adult brain is far more plastic than we once thought. Throughout our lives, our brain is capable of substantially rewiring itself so that we can acquire new knowledge and skills.
And perceptual abilities.
Indeed, just as neuro-plasticity allows us to learn complex new motor skills throughout life, it also allows us to learn complex new perceptual abilities. From the standpoint of cognitive stimulation, the more complex the better.
At any given moment, our entire set of cognitive capabilities are a reflection of what we’ve trained our brains to learn. That includes the set of auditory discrimination abilities that are necessary to play by ear. And the difference between someone who has those auditory abilities and someone who doesn’t is that one has spent a lot more time caring about being able to hear certain details in music.
Training our brain to perform a new perceptual skill first requires that we care about having that skill!
Remember: attention is the gatekeeper of neuro-plasticity. Meaning that brains don’t change without sustained attention. Not without us saying “hey brain, I really want to be able to hear details in this music that I can’t presently hear.”
Developing that skill is not only wonderful for music-making, but for recreating some of that neuronal nourishing perceptual stimulation of childhood.
And now for a couple of related studies on this topic…
STUDY #1: “Influence of musical and psychoacoustical training on pitch discrimination”
I know from experience (my own and that of many others) that through practice we can acquire the auditory abilities necessary for playing by ear. But there’s a significant body of formal research that also shows this to be true.
One example: A 2006 study took 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musicians (with no prior musical training) and tested them on a pitch discrimination task. When they were initially tested, the musicians’ performance was 6 times better than non-musicians.
The non-musicians with no prior training then practiced the pitch discrimination task for a total of 14 hours, and after that training the non-musicians were performing as well as the professional musicians. On average, it took between 4 and 8 hours of training for them to do so!
But wait, there’s more…
As you know, taking advantage our brain’s incredible capacity to change itself to acquire new superpowers is not only loads of fun, but the best way to ensure our brain remains healthy and fit.
And that includes acquiring new feats of auditory discrimination:
STUDY #2: “Recovery of Functional and Structural Age-Related Changes in the Rat Primary Auditory Cortex with Operant Training.”
In this 2010 study published by Dr. Michael Merzenich and colleagues, several weeks of auditory training in adult rats was shown to not only improve over 20 age-related cortical processing deficits, but to restore those adult brains back to a youthful state.
In other words, auditory training alone made their brain look and perform like the brains of young rats!
There is no drug or supplement capable of doing anything like this. And a pretty strong case for ear training, if you ask me. :)
In this section, I’ll provide some of my favorite recommended resources for improving brain health and function.
Course Recommendation: Piano Blast (The Brainjo Academy)
Since we’re talking about training your ear to develop new perceptual abilities and improve brain health, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Brainjo Academy’s Piano Blast course.
The Brainjo Blast courses are designed to provide the most efficient path to learning a musical instrument, and to maximize the cognitive stimulation from learning. Naturally, that means you’ll be learning to play entirely by ear (remember too that the worse your ear skills are right now, the better this training will be for your brain!).
So, whether you took lessons growing up but gave up in frustration, or you always wanted to learn how to play but thought you were too old or not “musical” enough, or you want to break free from the tyranny of written notation, then now is the time to learn!
From The Brainjo Library: “Live-wired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain”
I’m pretty picky when it comes to books about the brain. But this one is a notable exception.
Author David Eagleman is both a neuroscientist and gifted communicator. That rare combination is likely why the book isn’t littered with the inaccuracies, over-generalizations, and spurious speculations that plague so many popular books on neuroscience.
It’s a book about plasticity - specifically the incredible plasticity of our perceptual systems. You’ll learn about the devices that allow people to “see” with their tongues or hear with their skin, and how in the not-too-distant future we might develop new perceptual abilities beyond our wildest imaginations. A really fun read that will surely expand your conceptions of the limits of human potential.
(Click here to learn more about how books are selected for inclusion in the Brainjo Library).Thanks so much for reading all the way to the end! Until next time…
p.s. - if you know of someone else who you think would enjoy this newsletter, please feel free to spread the word!