Musicians use both sides of their brains more frequently than average people

Supporting what many of us who are not musically talented have often felt, new research reveals that trained musicians really do think differently than the rest of us. Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use a creative technique called divergent thinking, and also use both the left and the right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than the average person.

The research by Crystal Gibson, Bradley Folley and Sohee Park is currently in press at the journal Brain and Cognition.

"We were interested in how individuals who are naturally creative look at problems that are best solved by thinking 'out of the box'," Folley said. "We studied musicians because creative thinking is part of their daily experience, and we found that there were qualitative differences in the types of answers they gave to problems and in their associated brain activity."

One possible explanation the researchers offer for the musicians' elevated use of both brain hemispheres is that many musicians must be able to use both hands independently to play their instruments.

"Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres," Folley said. "Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere."

Previous studies of creativity have focused on divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems. Highly creative individuals often display more divergent thinking than their less creative counterparts.

To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 20 classical music students from the Vanderbilt Blair School of Music and 20 non-musicians from a Vanderbilt introductory psychology course. The musicians each had at least eight years of training. The instruments they played included the piano, woodwind, string and percussion instruments. The groups were matched based on age, gender, education, sex, high school grades and SAT scores.

The researchers conducted two experiments to compare the creative thinking processes of the musicians and the control subjects. In the first experiment, the researchers showed the research subjects a variety of household objects and asked them to make up new functions for them, and also gave them a written word association test. The musicians gave more correct responses than non-musicians on the word association test, which the researchers believe may be attributed to enhanced verbal ability among musicians. The musicians also suggested more novel uses for the household objects than their non-musical counterparts.

In the second experiment, the two groups again were asked to identify new uses for everyday objects as well as to perform a basic control task while the activity in their prefrontal lobes was monitored using a brain scanning technique called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS. NIRS measures changes in blood oxygenation in the cortex while an individual is performing a cognitive task.

"When we measured subjects' prefrontal cortical activity while completing the alternate uses task, we found that trained musicians had greater activity in both sides of their frontal lobes. Because we equated musicians and non-musicians in terms of their performance, this finding was not simply due to the musicians inventing more uses; there seems to be a qualitative difference in how they think about this information," Folley said.

The researchers also found that, overall, the musicians had higher IQ scores than the non-musicians, supporting recent studies that intensive musical training is associated with an elevated IQ score.

Source: Vanderbilt University

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Oct 02, 2008
Thinking 'out of the box' isn't done by training your brain to be 'inside the box', for example most 'trained' musicians can not hear a portion of music and replay it without sheet music.

Oct 02, 2008
Bob_B, are you commenting on, for example, that the Beatles couldn't read sheet music? They are a rare exception. Maybe classical musicians are not often called to replay music, but jazz musicians could not function without that ability, I'm thinking.

My thought about the article is that the results are not really surprising because most people are not trained to do quite different, complicated and interrelated actions with different hands. (And possibly with their feet.)

A typing keyboard is really not the same because it's largely the same activity with both hands. But if that's true, though, then computer gamers might have some of the same advantages, since right and left hand controls differ.

Oct 02, 2008
Most trained musians? Really. Please give statistics pointing to this. It's been my experience as a trained musician with a very large group of people I've known being trained do just fine replaying tunes we hear. Your spouting bunkum buddy.

Oct 02, 2008
I think it has more to do with your improvisational skills than being "trained".
I have played with "trained" musicians that couldnt improvise(think out of the box).

Not only that, music improves your brains timing.
And better timing makes you a better musician as well as smarter.

Oct 03, 2008
that's not the point, they only used the musician for the study, anyone who decides to wake up and do something with themselves will probably give the same results.

"We were interested in how individuals who are naturally creative look at problems that are best solved by thinking 'out of the box'."

everyone is naturally creative.

Oct 03, 2008
My view is that all musicians are not equally inclined to be creative. Some musicians can only reproduce the works of others, while some prefer to create their own work, play by ear, or create music on the fly. I've been artistic from a very young age - i hummed to music before i could speak, and i was drawing better than a five year old when i was only two. I discovered my talent for playing music when i was 12 and taught myself to play the piano, drum and guitar. I still play and create music to this day but I'm not a professional musician (i made more lucrative career choices). I guess this ability is probably connected to my tendency to plan ahead so well, to think abstractly and to work effectively on the fly - multitasking is essential in my line of work. I have friends who are not musicians but who have similar traits. In fact, i found that such people are also naturally better at performing simple musical tasks - the difference is amazing actually. So i think there are people out there who are not musicians by profession who have the natural ability within them. The things i look for in recognizing such a person - loves a wide variety of music genres, likes to dance and sing (especially if they have perfect timing when doing so), has artistic ability (painting, drawing etc), is well organized and can think more creatively than average.

Oct 05, 2008
I've been singing since i could remember myself and playing the guitar for 14 years, and i also wright music. But i can't say that i'm more creative and better organized than some of my friends who have no inclination to music. - my favorite web site.

Oct 06, 2008
I think they should also compare the musicians to some people from the exact sciences. In my opinion, music training is mostly advanced concentration training, something which people from the exact sciences are also good at.

Oct 11, 2008
Brain like muscle. More use get better.

Nov 09, 2008
"The researchers also found that, overall, the musicians had higher IQ scores than the non-musicians, supporting recent studies that intensive musical training is associated with an elevated IQ score."

That's the silent evidence theorem of Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Lower IQ individuals will not succeed in becoming talenteous musicians.

This conclusion should be the other way around...

Nov 25, 2008
It's important to note that this article is not making a statement saying that non-musicians are less intelligent, or less creative. The article is simply illustrating the results of a single experiment--The results of which happen to support the conclusions of several other music and brain-based research: That participating in music stimulates the brain in ways that other activities simply do not.

http://www.doveso...nt/Music and the Brain.asp

One cannot deny that music stimulates areas of the brain that other activities can not.

As we learn about the brain, we know that more brain stimulation creates more neural pathways in the brain. More neural pathways in the brain typically means a higher intelligence quotient.

Researchers already know that music is great for the brain. They're more concerned with the how and why. That's the tougher question.

Nov 25, 2008
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