Those years of training shape the brain in welcome ways.
By Tom Jacobs
Musical training yields many cognitive benefits, including an enhanced ability to multitask. New research uncovers yet another practical advantage that has ramifications far beyond the concert hall: quicker reaction times.
“The long-term playing of an instrument is sustained exposure to an enriched sensory environment, which leads to changes in cortical connectivity and behavioral ability,” write Simon Landry and Francois Champoux of the University of Montreal. “These results strongly point towards musicians being better at integrating the inputs from various senses.”
Their study, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, featured 16 musicians, most recruited from the university’s music faculty, and 19 non-musicians. All of the musicians had at least seven years of training on one or more instruments.
The participants sat with one hand on a computer mouse, and another on a small device that periodically vibrated for 50 milliseconds. They were instructed to left click on the mouse as soon as they felt the vibration, heard a burst of “white noise,” or noticed both simultaneously.
“We found significantly faster reaction times with musicians for auditory, tactile, and audio-tactile stimulations,” the researchers report. The results suggest “musical training alters sensory ability, whether for a single sensory system or the integration of multiple sensory systems.”
The reasons for this seem clear. As Landry and Champoux noted, “Musicians undergo long periods of exposure to synchronous auditory, tactile, motor, visual, and emotional components.” This experience in “a rich multisensory environment” fine-tunes our brains to react quickly to all sorts of sensory input.
Needless to say, our reaction times decrease as we age, which can be a problem for elderly drivers. In announcing the study’s publication, Landry speculated that the results could have implications for keeping us sharper longer.
“The more we know about the impact of music on basic sensory processes, the more we can apply musical training to individuals who might have slower reaction times,” he said.
Perhaps in the future, gerontologists will be writing prescriptions for piano lessons.