The discussion described the shift in cognitive neuroscience research from identifying what areas of the brain perform which functions to identifying the pathways that connect those different areas. These connections were compared to an airlines’ flight map which shows numerous flights routed through various hubs (e.g., New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) in order to more efficiently service the entire nation. In the case of the brain, though, the connections are between the various lobes and functional areas.
The presenter specializes in recovery from strokes and his research indicates that there is one particular pattern of connectivity that predicts how well a patient will respond to treatment. Interestingly, rehab treatments can strengthen the desired pathways, leading to continued gains of function over the long haul. This directly contradicts the accepted wisdom when I was in graduate school that stroke victims will experience 90% of their gains in the first 3 months after the stroke and that there will be no further recovery of functions after the 1-year mark.
Watching the presentation got me thinking that perhaps one of the benefits of living a brain-healthy lifestyle is that it strengthens these connections or, at the very least, delays their atrophy. Diet and exercise, in particular, have been shown to strengthen the myelin sheath around axons which form the transmission cables of these connections.
And perhaps its ability to strengthen these connections is why learning to play a musical instrument is so highly recommended as a brain-healthy activity.
For my part, I decided to try to learn to play the recorder because it is a relatively simple instrument to learn and you don’t have to tune it. These were very compelling attributes for someone with no ear for music and a singing range of about six notes!
I try to practice about 30 minutes each day and I’m starting to make some progress. I only attempt to play songs with which I am familiar so I’ll know if I’m playing them correctly. At this point, I can play tunes in four different keys and, just this week, I discovered that I can now play some songs by ear. Something is definitely changing inside my head!
Cognitively, playing any instrument is a pretty complicated activity. First you use your visual cortex to see the notes. Then you have to associate those images with specific finger positions on the instrument. Then you use your motor cortex to move your fingers into position and your sense of touch to tell you that you have reached your target. Your auditory cortex in your temporal lobes hears the sound you produce and your prefrontal cortex compares it to the tune you’ve stored in your memory and orders the necessary adjustments when you make a mistake.
And these are just the cortical activities! Let’s not overlook the contribution of the limbic system that allows you to play with emotion instead of just hitting a series of notes and the brainstem which, in the case of wind instruments, controls your breathing. Just about the only system that isn’t engaged is olfaction.
The astounding thing about all this, though, is that it’s not just about using all these different areas of your brain. You have to use them all at the same time and it all has to be coordinated. That takes a lot of synapses firing harmoniously and it requires those signals to travel long distances back and forth throughout your brain.
It would seem, then, that learning to play an instrument will strengthen a variety of functional areas and, perhaps even more importantly, the axons connecting them. It’s quite a workout. No wonder I’m sweating by the time I finish my practice sessions!
Unfortunately, I have no proof that my musical efforts are strengthening the long-distance connections in my brain. That would require before and after fMRI imaging. And I would need pre- and post- cognitive testing to see if those strengthened pathways were linked to improved performance, or at least a slower rate of atrophy than my age-sex peers. Lacking both, I’ll just take it on faith that I’m re-paving the road on my journey to nowhere and that that’s a good thing!