New Research Shows Music Helps Develop Working Memory

And could help individuals suffering from schizophrenia and depression

A recent study shows that learning an instrument is an effective way of improving one’s working memory. Working memory is often thought as something that can be improved by doing interactive tasks, like simple games for children that involve memory ability, or improving quickness with vocabulary and mathematics. But becoming a musician might be a better choice.

Working memory, according to Scientific American, is theorized as being basically the “limited number of ‘items’ or ‘chunks’ of information your brain can hold on to at a singular time. This includes the memorization of digits, letters, words, or other units. And maybe one of the most interesting things about working memory is that it is subject to the bias of our subconscious, just like most other things in life. This means, according to research, for some people remembering the flavors of ice cream offered in order will be harder that remembering the first ten digits of pi, just because of the type of information it is they are trying to remember.

A study examining this difference was published this month in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The 41 Canadian participants were between the ages of 19 and 35 and were either musicians who only spoke English; non-musicians who only spoke English; or English speakers who were fluent in a second language but did not play a instrument. They were divided into these three groups and asked to listen to, then categorize, a series of sounds while their brain activity was being scanned. They were supposed to separate the different sounds they were hearing into three groups: human-caused (such as a sneeze), environmental (like wind rustling trees), or a note from a musical instrument.

What was discovered was that musicians excelled at categorizing sounds and at pinpointing their locations compared to the bilinguals and the non-musicians. This showed that musicians have an aptitude in tasks that strain their working memory. For the musicians to be considered in the study, they had to have at least seven years of training and be currently active in performing music. After looking at the brain scans, researchers commented that musicians’ brains “showed distinct task-specific patterns of activation” in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is in the frontal part of the brain and is associated with processing, learning and memory.

This research could help individuals whose cognitive abilities are suffering because of aging since working memory usually declines with old age, because of degradation of the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Learning to play an instrument could help counteract degradation of working memory from aging. It is also possible it may counteract it in mental illnesses that have a negative effect on working memory, like individuals who suffer from depression and schizophrenia.

The reason this could help individuals who suffer from depression and schizophrenia is because these conditions, according to Scientific American, “are associated with decreased functioning of prefrontal cortex, which can be revealed via neuroimaging.” Because of this, depression and schizophrenia are also associated with having a decreased working memory ability. Playing a musical instrument helped improve working memory, and could potentially help improve the working memories of individuals suffering from depression and schizophrenia.