Tuesday 20 December 2011

A Grain of Salt

Studying music makes you smarter, right?  If you believe every research study that’s ever been done, music training increases your IQ, makes you better at math, enhances verbal memory, general verbal ability and non-verbal reasoning, improves fine-motor control and motor learning, increases vocabulary and reading ability, enhances visuospatial cognition, and improves executive function.

Musicians, especially classically trained musicians, are generally thought to be smart.  And music and math “go together” so that people who are good at one are good at the other.  These ideas are so frequently touted that many people just assume they are true, without really looking at the evidence.

There have a been a fair number of research studies looking at the question of how musical training affects other abilities.  What I’d like to make clear today is that not all studies are created equal. 

How would you study it?
Imagine you want to test the hypothesis that studying music increases your IQ.  There are two main types of study that you could use.  The first (and weaker) type of study is correlational. Usually the study works something like this:  you would recruit a group of people with musical training (often university students studying music), and a second control group of people with no musical training.  Both groups take an intelligence test.  You expect that the group with musical training would be found to be smarter, and if they are, the conclusion would be that musical training increases your IQ.

Correlation and causation
But have you really shown that?  Correlational studies like this should have an important disclaimer:  the study doesn’t actually prove that musical training makes you smarter.  Scientists like to say that “correlation does not imply causation”.  What this means is that a correlational study shows only that:  a correlation.  The study shows that there is some kind of relationship between musical training and increased intelligence, but it doesn’t show what that relationship is.  There are several possibilities:
1)  Musical training makes you smarter
2)  People who are smarter are more likely to take and continue with musical studies
3)  Both musical training and increased intelligence are caused by some third unknown variable (such as family income, or competitive personality, or strong parental support).

Do you see how correlational studies are kind of weak?  There are a lot of studies in the literature that are conducted this way, because it’s easy to do.  But the studies don’t necessarily tell us all that much.

Longitudinal studies
So what is the better way to do this study?  The second type of research study you could do is a longitudinal study.  This type of study takes two groups of people and follows them over time to see how musical training alters other skills.  You would recruit people for the study and divide them into two groups.  One group would receive music instruction and one group would not.  You give the subjects an IQ test at the beginning and end of the music instruction, which goes for a defined period of time.  Ideally there would be no difference in test scores between the two groups at the beginning of the study, but at the end of the study, the group with musical training would outperform the control group.  The conclusion would be that the musical training has caused the difference in performance on the test, and this would be a much stronger and believable conclusion.

Dividing up the groups
There are a number of issues to consider in this type of study.  The first is:  how are the participants divided into the two groups?  There are different ways of doing this.  One way is to divide them completely randomly, which might seem like it would be the best, but what if you accidentally ended up with all the smartest people in one group?  Then you would find a difference in IQ before you even started the experiment, and that would make your study kind of useless.  If you have a large number of participants in your study, you're probably okay with a random division into groups, because chances are it will work out okay, but if you have a small number of people, you need to be careful about this.

Another option is completely non-random:  you recruit a group of people who were about to start receiving musical training anyway, and then you recruit a group of control people who match them first group in IQ.  This option has the advantage that you don’t have to give the musical training; the subjects were already going to do that.  Of course, the disadvantage here is that by taking away the randomness, you may be preselecting people in your musical training group that have some other variable you can’t control for.  For example, maybe the people in the musical training group have a higher income, which is why they can afford music lessons, and this may affect the way intelligence develops over the course of the study.

The third option is called pseudo-random.  You recruit people, give them the initial intelligence test, and then divide them into two groups in such a way that the two groups are evenly matched for initial intelligence, and also matched for other variables like age, family income, etc.

No matter how you split up your groups, there are other problems to be overcome with this type of study.  The main one is a kind of trade-off.  You want the study to run for as long as possible to ensure the biggest difference between the two groups.  If you only give one week of musical training, you’re less likely to find an effect on IQ.  But if the study runs for too long, you run into other difficulties. First of all, it’s expensive because you have to provide music lessons for all that time.  And second, you start running into problems where people drop out of the study, usually from the group receiving music instruction.  People do drop out of music lessons; it’s a big investment in time and not everybody is willing to make the commitment to daily practice, once they see how much work is involved.  So you have fewer people in your music-training group.  You might think this is not a big deal, but there’s another issue here.  If people who are less inclined to study music drop out, then you are left with people who naturally more inclined to study music.  Maybe these people are more intelligent to start with.  Or there is some other factor (like level of parental support) that could contribute to both continuing with musical training and also increased intelligence.  You see?  If too many people drop out, you lose your randomness.

The Bottom Line
I hope this discussion gives you some perspective on studies about the effects of musical training.  It’s actually hard to design and implement a really good study.  But then, what effect does musical training really have?  What can we believe from all the research that is out there?

I’ll discuss this research more in future posts, but it seems to me that there is pretty clear evidence that musical training improves verbal abilities, probably because music and speech both involve auditory parts of the brain.  And improved verbal abilities enhance reading skills.  A recent study also showed that musical training improved executive function in children.  I haven’t seen any good evidence that musical training improves math or spatial skills.  As for overall IQ, some studies have shown that musical training increases IQ, but some have not seen this increase, so I conclude that the effect is probably quite small.

Does studying music make you smarter?  Maybe a little.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

A Lot More Than 10 Percent!

Have you ever heard that you only use 10% of your brain?  I don’t know where that idea came from, but it’s definitely wrong.  At any one time, you are using many, many parts of your brain at once, certainly more than 10%.  Even doing nothing activates circuits in brain known as the default mode network, which is most active when we are daydreaming, lost in space.  Only 10% of our brain?  That idea is completely bogus, as are a number of other things you think you know about the brain.

Listening to and playing music probably uses more of the brain at once than most other activities we engage in.  Research has shown that listening to music recruits a number of different areas of the brain.  However, it’s been tricky to tease apart which parts of the brain do exactly what in processing music, since it’s almost impossible to completely separate the different components that make up music.  And besides, if you try to whittle music down to a single component (i.e. rhythm or pitch or timbre), is what you’re left with really music?  Does the brain respond the same way to stylized lab-produced sounds as it would to a real musical excerpt?

A recent study from a Finnish research group has tried to answer these questions by combining computer-based acoustic feature extraction with fMRI analysis of people listening to a tango by Astor Piazzolla

The results support much of the research that has been reported in the past, in terms of which parts of the brain are activated by specific aspects of music – timbre, rhythmic pulse, key, etc.  But the findings also show that the areas activated are more widespread than previously thought, and there are also areas that are activated during music listening that didn’t seem to correlate with any of the features specifically studied.  What these parts of the brain are doing remains to be seen.  Also, and not surprisingly, listening to a real piece of music activated emotional centres of the brain more than in other studies using less naturalistic stimuli.

Timbre was found to activate widespread areas of temporal cortex, especially on the right side, as well as cognitive parts of cerebellum.  Music with complex timbre deactivates the default mode network, meaning that it grabs our attention and the parts of our brain that make our mind wander get turned off.

Interestingly, motor and somatosensory areas of brain were activated, even when just listening to music.  The subjects were all trained musicians, and it has previously been shown that listening to music can activate motor areas, as if we are unconsciously thinking about actually playing the music we hear.  The somatosensory areas may be activated due to mirror neuron activity.  These areas are activated when hearing sounds made by others’ actions.

Overall, it is clear from this study and from previous research that listening to music activates large brain-wide networks of neurons.  Performing music must activate even more of our brain:  areas for planning and controlling movements, somatosensory areas for bodily feedback, and visual cortex for reading music, at the very least.  No wonder musical training is so good for your brain:  it’s a like full-brain workout.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Opening Night Jitters

Tonight is opening night.  I can already imagine it:  the theatre is full.  From the wings I can hear muted pre-show conversations, the rustle of programs, laughter.  The house lights go down, and the tension in my stomach tightens; my intestines feel like knots.  I start to sweat, and hope my shaking is not visible.  As the opening music begins, I walk onto the stage.

 The Cast of Another Elfing Musical. Photo by Jon Snow

I’m appearing this week in an amateur musical theatre production.  Six sold-out shows in a small theatre.  I get to sing, dance, act and play the flute.  And though my body shows its instinctive stage-fright responses, I know I will be fine.  I’ve been through this before.

Performance Anxiety
Stagefright, known to scientists and doctors as “performance anxiety” results from an overactivation of a part of the brain called the amygdala.  This walnut-sized collection of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain is responsible for emotion, and the emotion is does best is fear.  Fear, after all, is what stagefright is all about.  We’re afraid we’re going to play wrong notes, be out of tune, forget what to play altogether, and most of all we’re afraid of looking like a fool.  Afraid of being judged and coming up lacking. 

Role of the Amygdala
The amygdala is closely connected to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system, itself responsible for keeping our bodily systems on an even keel.  When we experience fear, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the well-known “fight or flight response”.  Our heart-rate increases, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, we perspire.  Blood is directed away from our extremities, gut and skin, and towards the large muscles of our arms and legs, so we’re ready to run or fight if necessary.  The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which act to mobilize glucose into the blood so we have an easily accessible source of energy.

The fight or flight response may be useful if our fear is the result of an encounter with a grizzly bear, but in the case of stagefright, it’s hard to see how it can help us.  Altered breathing just makes more problems for singers and wind instrumentalists.  Lack of blood to the fingers hampers skilled movements of pianists, violinists and other musicians.  And shaking doesn’t help anybody perform.  From this point of view, fear is a maladaptive response to performance.

Fear alters your brain chemistry
However, fear has an effect not just on our body, but on our brain too.  As well as activating the sympathetic nervous system, fear increases the levels of noradrenaline and glucocorticoids in the brain.  These chemicals can have both positive and negative effects.  Many musicians feel that a little bit of “performance jitters” gives them a heightened awareness, an extra edge that helps them perform better.  Studies have shown that the combination of noradrenaline and corticosterone improves memory and attention.  Moderate levels of stress have been shown to lead to extra vigilance and alertness, and increased cognitive processing speed. 

Fear and stress can certainly have negative effects on our brain, too.  Many of these maladaptive fear responses are mediated by the prefrontal cortex.  Fear inhibits our working memory and decreases our behavioural flexibility.  We’ve probably all experienced that feeling of panic when fear makes us completely forget everything we’re supposed to be doing.

Panicking and Choking
When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to post about stagefright, she handed me a book off of her shelf.  It was What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, and she recommended a particular chapter that talks about the difference between panicking and choking.  These are two different responses cause people to fail in stressful situations. 

When people choke, they start to think too much.  For musicians and athletes, this is a recipe for disaster.  As I discussed in a previous post, much of what we learn during our music practice goes into implicit memory, meaning we’re not consciously aware of the sequence of movements we’re making.  But sometimes under stressful conditions, we over-think, and start trying to use our explicit memory of how to play, which isn’t very good.  Our performance falls apart; we choke.

Panicking, on the other hand, is when the mind goes blank.  Instead of thinking too much, we are unable to think enough.  Obviously, this can also be a huge problem during music performance.  If my mind goes blank tonight right at the beginning of my solo, I’m in big trouble.

Combating Stagefright
Stagefright falls into the anxiety family of mental disorders.  For many, it can’t really be called a disorder – a few butterflies in the stomach before performing is normal.  But for some, stagefright is a serious problem, impairing their musical performance and perhaps discouraging them from becoming serious musicians.  Several studies have looked at the prevalence of stagefright and found that it is a widespread problem, but not much discussed.  Many professional musicians are prescribed beta-blockers, which act to block the effects of adrenaline.  Others option include the of use yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mental imagery to counteract stagefright.

The studies that I read about the prevalence of stagefright all basically boiled down to the same thing:  it would be good for teachers to talk to their students about stagefright and ways to combat it.  When I was a teenager, I had an excellent flute teacher who taught me some simple meditation exercises as a way to relax before performing.  My students have a recital coming up at the end of January, so I’ll be thinking about what I can do to help them mentally prepare (and you’ll likely see another post on this topic around that time).

As a performer, I find that what helps me the most is, quite simply, being prepared.  If I feel that I know my music inside out and upside down, I’m less likely to stress about performing.  And on that note, I think I’ll go do a little practicing for tonight’s show.  And this evening at the start of the show, I’ll close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just go do it.