MindBlog has noted a number of studies that document beneficial effects of early music training on adult brain function. Now Steele and collaborators make observations that may partially explain why musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma, Oscar Peterson, and Pablo Casals, who all began training in early childhood before the age of 7 years, are so highly skilled. The authors examine the bundle of nerve fibers, the corpus callosum, that links our two cerebral hemispheres. Playing a musical instrument requires the coordinated action of the two hands and interhemispheric interactions mediated by the corpus callosum have been shown to play a prominent role in bimanual coordination. They measure the connectivity of this nerve fiber bundle using MRI. Edited from their introduction:
…there may be a sensitive period when early musical training has greater effects on the brain and behavior than training later in life…A sensitive period is defined as a developmental window where experience has long-lasting effects on the brain and behavior …studies in animals show that exposure or training during specific periods in development can produce enhanced structural and functional plasticity in visual, auditory, and somatosensory regions of the brain…Evidence for sensitive periods in humans comes from studies of second language learning showing that early exposure results in greater proficiency, studies of deaf children showing that receiving cochlear implants earlier results in better language development, and studies of blind persons showing greater neuronal reorganization following early blindness.
Musicians are an excellent model for investigating possible sensitive period effects on brain and behavior, as training often begins early and is quantifiable…Evidence for a possible sensitive period for musical training came from a study showing that the anterior corpus callosum (CC) was larger in musicians than non-musicians, and that the difference was greater for those who began training before the age of 7 years…However, none of these studies controlled for the fact that musicians who begin earlier typically have more training than those who begin later.
Here is their abstract:
Training during a sensitive period in development may have greater effects on brain structure and behavior than training later in life. Musicians are an excellent model for investigating sensitive periods because training starts early and can be quantified. Previous studies suggested that early training might be related to greater amounts of white matter in the corpus callosum, but did not control for length of training or identify behavioral correlates of structural change. The current study compared white-matter organization using diffusion tensor imaging in early- and late-trained musicians matched for years of training and experience. We found that early-trained musicians had greater connectivity in the posterior midbody/isthmus of the corpus callosum and that fractional anisotropy in this region was related to age of onset of training and sensorimotor synchronization performance. We propose that training before the age of 7 years results in changes in white-matter connectivity that may serve as a scaffold upon which ongoing experience can build.
“There are stories that are true, in which each individuals tale is unique and tragic, and the worst of the tragedy is that we have heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints of us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to.”—Neil Gaiman (Via)
WHERE WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO VISIT ON YOUR PLANET?
To visit? Probably a place in Vermont called Nelly’s Place. Its a small house that has several murals and antique treasures that I grew up with as a kid. It also has a book nook, which is basically a walk in closet library where you can curl up and read a book. Its actually one of the few places I feel most at home.
It’s hard to get rid of unwanted thoughts. What about just throwing them in the garbage like unwanted objects? In some conditions might we discard our thoughts as easily as we dispose of objects? If Mr. Descartes was right (straw man, I know), a thought cannot literally be thrown into the garbage, because it does not have a material or physical nature. If a component of our cognition is taken to be a physical object, we should be able to discard it. Briñol et al. make some observations relevant to these points. Their experiments involved subjects writing down positive and negative thoughts about their bodies. First, their abstract:
In Western dualistic culture, it is assumed that thoughts cannot be treated as material objects; however, language is replete with metaphorical analogies suggesting otherwise. In the research reported here, we examined whether objectifying thoughts can influence whether the thoughts are used in subsequent evaluations. In a firstexperiment participants wrote about what they either liked or disliked about their bodies. Then, the paper on which they wrote their thoughts was either ripped up and tossed in the trash or kept and checked for errors. When participants physically discarded a representation of their thoughts, they mentally discarded them as well, using them less in forming judgments than did participants who retained a representation of their thoughts. A second experiment replicated this finding and also showed that people relied on their thoughts more when they physically kept them in a safe place—putting their thoughts in their pockets—than when they discarded them. A final study revealed that these effects were stronger when the action was performed physically rather than merely imagined.
Now, a bit more detail on the first experiment:
The experiment was presented as a study on body image. All participants received written instructions asking them to complete several tasks. As part of the first task, each participant was randomly assigned to generate and write down either positive or negative thoughts about his or her own body during a 3-min period. In the positive-thoughts condition, participants were told to list as many positive thoughts about their bodies as they could; in the negative-thoughts condition, participants were told to list as many negative thoughts about their bodies as they could (e.g., Killeya & Johnson, 1998). Examination of the thoughts listed indicated that all participants followed the instructions.
After listing his or her thoughts, each participant was randomly assigned to either the thought-disposal or the control condition. All participants were asked to look back at the thoughts they wrote. In the thought-disposal condition, participants were asked to contemplate their thoughts and then throw them into the trash can located in the room, because their thoughts did not have to remain with them. In the control condition, participants were asked to contemplate their thoughts and to check for any grammar or spelling errors they could find.
The dependent variable in our analysis was participants’ attitudes toward their bodies. Participants were told that they should record these attitudes because their self-image might have influenced their previous responses. Attitudes were assessed using three 9-point semantic-differential scales (e.g., bad-good, unattractive-attractive, like-dislike). Ratings were highly intercorrelated (α = .88), so we averaged them (after reverse scoring as appropriate) to create a composite attitude index. Higher values on this index indicated more favorable attitudes.
From their discussion:
Consistent with our hypothesis that a thought-disposal treatment can influence judgments by invalidating people’s thoughts, results showed that the attitudes of participants who physically threw their thoughts away showed less impact of the thought-direction induction than did the attitudes of participants who physically retained their thoughts….It is important to note that because the treatment was induced after thoughts were already generated, it could not affect the valence or the number of participants’ thoughts. Rather, the treatment decreased the strength of the influence that participants’ thoughts had on their attitudes.