The brain training industry has come under attack in recent years. In October 2014, a group of 100 leading neuroscientists and psychologists wrote an open letter stating that claims made by brain training games, apps and programs were frequently exaggerated and misleading. Earlier this year, Luminosity gaming was fined $2million and ordered to refund thousands of customers after claims made about some product’s ability to improve general mental abilities and halt age-related neurological decline proved erroneous. While brain training apps and games are unlikely to provide a shortcut, there is some compelling evidence to suggest that lifestyle choices and activities can have neurological benefits and improve overall brain health.
Learning a music instrument can be beneficial for adults and children. Music stimulates the brain in powerful ways because of the emotion attached to it. Playing an instrument involves coordinating fine movements with information provided by our eyes, ears and sense of touch. Musicians offer an excellent opportunity for neuroscientist to study the brain over a lifetime and brain scans from musicians and non-musicians of the same age reveal striking differences. These differences often vary depending on the instrument involved. For example, the areas of the brain associated with movement, hearing and visual-spatial abilities appear much larger in keyboard players, and the area devoted to processing touch sensation from the left hand is larger in violinists.
These studies compared data from different groups of people at a single point in time and as such, are not able to tell us whether differences were actually caused by musical training or already existed in the subjects. However, other studies show that musical training helps improve verbal memory (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v396/n6707/abs/396128a0.html), spatial reasoning (http://www.artsedsearch.org/summaries/learning-to-make-music-enhances-spatial-reasoning) and literacy skills (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4664655/). Brain scanning studies show that the extent of the anatomical change is closely related to the age at which a musician began their training, with those beginning their training at the youngest age showing the greatest change.
The research indicates that learning to play a musical instrument is an extremely effective brain training method, inducing structural and functional changes in the brain over time. These changes depend on the type of instrument involved and the intensity of the training regime. This does not mean that every parent should force their child to learn a musical instrument. In order to have any positive impact, training regimes should be relatively regular, something that most parents know is only really achievable if a child derives pleasure from an activity. Musical training also demands a great deal of time and focus, both of which take time away from other activities or study. However, if you do have a little Bach or Beethoven at home, rest assured they are doing a great deal to keep their brain healthy, without the apps and gimmicks.
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