Music Instruction and Verbal Memory. . . a Cognitive Side-Effect

Darold Treffert MD

The July 2003 issue of Neuropsychology presents a fascinating article on how music instruction in children promotes an increase in verbal memory (i.e. language acquisition) almost as a ‘cognitive side effect’ of that training. As the APA press release about that article points out: “Those dreaded piano lessons pay off in unexpected ways.” In the study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, children with music training had significantly better verbal memory than those without such training, and the longer the training the better the verbal memory. Beyond those specific findings, the study underscores, with neuropsychological test results and imaging studies, that use (and training) of one area of the brain for one purpose can increase other skills in that same area — as a sort of cognitive side-effect. That finding has, in my view, vast implications for savant syndrome, (particularly for musical savants) and brain plasticity overall, both for brain development and learning in normally developing children, as well in as reparative and restorative function in those with brain injury, including savant syndrome.

From the standpoint of savant syndrome the study provides several important findings. First, while it points out the over-simplification of left brain/right brain dichotomy, it reinforces the hemisphere specialization of certain functions, and those of types of musical performance specifically. It supports the finding, for example, that suggests a shift from the right hemisphere (as in most musically naïve individuals) to the left hemisphere in the processing of music as music training experience increases.

Second, it goes on to document that musical training can provide “greater extent of cortical reorganization in the left temporal region” and “the more music training stimulates the left brain, the better that side can handle other assigned functions. It’s like cross-training for the brain.” In these particular music students that shows up as increased verbal memory which then helps learning overall. It is that ‘cross-training of the brain’ that, in my view, may account for the rather spectacular changes in language acquisition particularly that occurs in persons with savant syndrome who are engaged in musical training and musical practice that many therapists report and comment upon. To use the researchers words: “The behavioral data from the present study seem to mesh well with neuroimaging findings that demonstrated an enlargement in the left planum temporale in musicians. We proposed that musical training during childhood might serve as a kind of sensory stimulation that somehow contributes to the reorganization/better development of the left temporal lobe in musicians, which in turn facilitates cognitive processing mediated by that specific brain area, that is, verbal memory.” That training, incidentally, does not carry over or extend to right sided visual memory changes which is a whole other interesting finding.

Third, on an even greater scale, the study gives lends weight to the over-arching idea that there is a “use-dependent plasticity of the mammalian brain which suggests that behavioral activities guide/modify the development of synaptic connections of neural structures.” Beyond musical activities then, stimulation of one area of the brain through other activities as well, such as carried out in early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) activities, may have that same useful effect and account for the success of a variety of modalities of intervention (especially for language acquisition) with not only persons with savant syndrome, but with autism and other central nervous system (CNS) disorders as well. While such ‘brain-plasticity’ and effect of ‘cross-training’ of the brain seems quite clinically evident to families, teachers and therapists working with persons with savant syndrome, this article lends some specific confirming NP testing and imaging data, in these music students at least, to such CNS plasticity and reorganization potential overall.

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