Saturday, 12 July 2014

Drumming and the Brain

What would you say if I told you there was an exercise that, if practiced daily, would increase your IQ? What if I also told you that the same exercise would improve attention and cognitive function, increase the pain threshold, improve fine motor control, facilitate language acquisition and verbal fluency, facilitate social cohesion, improve mood and reduce fatigue, have a similar effect to Ritalin for ADD patients and provide a basis for gait training in stroke and Parkinson's patients? You'd probably tell me to stop spamming you and block me right? Admittedly it sounds too good to be true and usually if it sounds too good to be true then it is too good to be true. But what if I told you that there was sound scientific evidence for all of these claims, and that each of them is based upon a number of studies that have been published in peer reviewed journals? What if I also told you that to gain some benefit you only had to do 10 or 15 minutes a day, and that even watching people doing it is beneficial? Would you do it? Would you implement it in your school or workplace?

The exercise is playing a musical instrument and it is sadly lacking from most workplaces and many schools (there is currently no provision for music in most primary schools in the UK). Exactly why this is the case I'm not sure but I suspect it is, at least in part, due the double-edged blade of pleasure...

Music is indeed pleasurable to listen to, which may partly explain its enduring appeal throughout hominid evolutionary history (Merriam, 1964; Blacking, 1995; Trevarthen, 1999). Even listening to music can create intense emotional states that can produce measurable changes in brain chemistry (such as the release of dopamine in the striatal system observed by Salimpoor et al. 2011) while playing music affords musicians a greater tolerance to pain, which in turn suggests that endorphins are being released (Dunbar et al. 2012). But you can't escape the feeling that there's a bit more to it than pleasure. Music has the power to alter our mood or to evoke memories, we use it to help us concentrate or to relax, to synchronize our movements and help us keep moving to the beat and at its most powerful, music can transport us to another, dream-like world. Moreover learning to play a musical instrument involves diverse skills such as fine motor control, non-verbal communication, coordination, improvisation, focused attention and creating a mental state where 'flow' can occur. Given the complex skills that must be mastered in learning to play a musical instrument one might reasonably ask if a) the acquisition of these skills leads to structural and functional changes in the brain and b) these skills produce transferable effects on performance in other areas.

So what does the research say? Does music have observable effects on the brain, and does music training produce benefits in other areas?

Many studies have found that musicians score higher, on average, on a battery of tests than do non-musicians. For example one study (Hanna-Pladdy & Mackay, 2011) looked at the cognitive functioning of senior citizens as a function of the amount of musical training they had had in their lives. Of three groups, the 'high activity musicians' were better at performing visual tasks and were better at remembering words. Studies have also shown that musicians have higher IQs (Ullen, 2008), a greater digit span (Fujioka et al, 2006) and improved working memory (Parbery-Clark et al, 2009).

Yet more studies have found differences in brain structure between musicians and non-musicians and suggest that early learning of an instrument, followed by years of practice, can have profound effects on your brain. For example Gaser & Schlaug, (2003) found, "gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual–spatial brain regions when comparing professional musicians (keyboard players) with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians. Although some of these multi-regional differences could be attributable to innate predisposition, we believe they may represent structural adaptations in response to long-term skill acquisition and the repetitive rehearsal of those skills".

Thus there is mounting evidence that learning to play a musical instrument affects brain structure and function. Of course singing is a popular activity that does not require learning an instrument. Nevertheless learning to sing is, in many ways, a matter of mastering ones own instrument, and thus it is likely that many of the benefits discussed above apply to singing. Indeed a 2009 study, commissioned by Chorus America, supported earlier findings that adult choral singers exhibit increased social skills, civic involvement, volunteerism, philanthropy and support of other art forms compared with non-singers. Furthermore juvenile choral singers had more academic success and possessed more valuable life-skills than their non-singing peers.

There is even evidence that merely listening to music might have significant effects in certain situations. Nilsson (2009) demonstrated that actively listening to soothing music can increase a listener’s level of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a central role in the formation of social attachment and relationships in humans and non-human primates. Blood & Zatorre (2001) found that intensely pleasurable experiences evoked by familiar music activated brain areas that are known to be active in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs. According to Nathan Urban, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, when you concentrate your brain produces rapid, rhythmic electrical impulses called gamma waves. Conversely when you relax, it generates much slower alpha waves. It is likely, then, that the rhythm of listened-to music affects brainwaves. Indeed this very idea has informed several successful clinical therapies. For example Stanford News reported that,

"Harold Russell, a clinical psychologist and researcher in the Department of Gerontology and Health Promotion at the University of Texas, used rhythmic light and sound stimulation to treat ADD (attention deficit disorder) in elementary and middle school boys. His studies found that rhythmic stimuli that sped up brainwaves increased concentration in ways similar to medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. Following a series of 20-minute treatment sessions administered over several months, the children made lasting gains in concentration and performance on IQ tests and had a notable reduction in behavioral problems compared to the control group. Russell hopes to earn approval from the Food and Drug Administration to use the brainwave entrainment device as a treatment for ADD. The device uses an EEG to read brainwaves and then presents rhythmic light and sound stimuli through special eyeglasses and headphones at a slightly higher frequency than the brain's natural rhythm"

 According to the same article Thomas Budzynski conducted similar experiments with a small group of underachieving college students. He found that rhythmic light and sound therapy helped the  students achieve a significant improvement in their grades. Thus it seems that rhythm has observable effects on the brain and that these effects can be cognitively beneficial.

So, to summarize so far, playing a musical instrument requires a number of acquired skills that lead to structural changes in the brain and cognitive benefits for musicians. Merely listening to music confers many benefits and rhythmic sound and light can be used to improve concentration by altering brain waves. But as we shall see, that's just the tip of the iceberg...

As a treatment, rhythm has also been used with Parkinson's and stroke patients. With the addition of rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) to a standard physical therapy gait programme for stroke patients improvements were seen  in velocity, stride length and muscle functioning (Thaut et al, 1997). Also, since children with specific language impairment also show impairment of music-syntactic processing, it is possible that music training might mitigate against impairment.

 The music that I currently play (West African djembe and dundun) is often referred to as a language. Indeed the Maninka verb for 'To Play' and 'To Speak' is the same (Ka Fo) suggesting a close association between music and language in West Africa. There has been much research in this area, and the link between music and language is well documented. For example, when Brown et al, (2006) asked amateur musicians to vocally improvise melodic or linguistic phrases in response to unfamiliar, auditorily presented melodies or phrases they found that the same brain areas were used in both tasks; when Charles Limb (2008) used FMRi on Jazz pianists he found that when they were 'trading 4s' (a technique in Jazz where an improvisation is passed back and forth between musicians) their Brocas areas were very active, suggesting that musical improvisation uses the language areas of the brain. Further neurological evidence of the link between music and language is provided by the observation that children with specific language impairment also show impairment of music-syntactic processing (Jentschke et al., 2008).  But perhaps most interesting of all is that mirror neurons can be activated by sound.

 Mirror neurons were a big deal when they were discovered in 1992 by Di Pellegrino and colleagues. They were the kind of game-changing discovery that makes you think about something in a completely different way.  Mirror neurons were cells in macaques that fired both when the monkeys performed a particular action and when they watched the same action being performed by another individual! Mirror cells didn't seem to care who was performing the action, suggesting that our brains are actually rehearsing the movement when we watch someone perform an action. I really will get better by watching master drummers! Even more interesting then, is the finding by Kohler, E. et al (2002) that mirror neurons in primates fire when an action is performed, seen, or heard. Moreover these neurons were located in the monkey homologue of Broca's area, the same area of the brain that is so important in language production. Think about this for a minute because it really is quite profound...these cells are activated by sound but they represent much more than that; they are activated visually but they represent much more than just visual information; Kohler et al. propose that these neurons encode the meaning of an action and as such could form the basis of language acquisition!

Thus it seems that sounds that are linked to actions activate mirror neurons it the language centres of the brain. As a djembe player who has been playing and practicing hard since the year 2000 it is likely that quite a lot of my brain represents drumming actions. According to the research on mirror neurons these 'motor programs' will be activated when I drum, when I watch someone drumming and also when I listen to someone drumming! So when I listen to that Iya Sako CD while I'm driving my brain is practicing drumming! Wow! But this makes total sense to me as a djembe player. When I sing a rhythm (something that djembe players often do) I can feel my hands wanting to move. The effect of learning to drum as part of a group on language acquisition per sé is not known, and would form an interesting area of research, but after 3 years of living in West Africa I have an anecdotal observation: West Africans are incredible linguists. Most West Africans I met spoke their own ethnic language, one or two other local languages to some extent, plus at least a decent amount of one or more colonial languages (usually French, English or Portuguese). It is very common to have a conversation amongst a group that flits back and forth between several different languages. I remember having a hilarious conversation with two truck drivers in The Gambia; one spoke Mandinka and French, the other spoke Fula, Mandinka and English, while I spoke English and a decent bit of French. Thus no matter what language was spoken at any one time, there was always one person who didn't understand and had to be translated for! I met one amazing lady from Sierra Leone who was working at a refugee camp in Guinea Conakry. She proudly told me that she spoke nine languages and then proceeded to talk in all of them! Amazing, but it is by no means unusual in West Africa to speak four, five or six languages to a reasonable standard. Rhythm, drumming and singing as a woven into the fabric of life in West Africa. Infants are immersed in it from the womb and thus if drumming did facilitate language acquisition then West Africa would be a good contender for superior language skills...

Whilst it seems that on a neurological level music and language have much in common, music and language learning also share many features: Musical competence is unconsciously and automatically acquired upon exposure and develops along a standard biological timetable (Miller, 2000, p. 335), with a sensitive period (after which musical skill is substantially more difficult to acquire) occurring around 7 years of age (Habib and Besson, 2009, p. 279; see also Elbert et al, 1995; Schlaug et al, 1995; Watanabe et al, 2007). Indeed the incidence of absolute pitch has been found to be much higher in China than in the US even when groups are matched for age of onset of musical training,  suggesting that the potential for acquiring absolute pitch may be universal, and may be realized by enabling infants to associate pitches with verbal labels during the critical period for acquisition of features of their native language.

 Whilst the studies considered so far have focused on the effects of music on the brain and cognition, as well as the link between music and language, other evidence suggests that music confers social benefits. In one study four year olds learned an activity in which they either a) learned a song and sang it as they synchronized their steps to music and walked around a pretend pond or b) crawled around a pretend pond without musical accompaniment. In a subsequent game those who had sung and marched together were more likely to act cooperatively than the other group. Thus it seems that coordinating our actions in a rhythmic activity promotes cooperative behaviour. Researchers from Singapore found that a musical beat facilitates concurrent stimulus processing, allowing synchronization across a group of individuals. I have already presented evidence that listening to music can increase levels of oxytocin (Nilsson, 2009), and these diverse strands of evidence lead some to argue that musical behavior is evolutionarily adaptive because it promotes group coordination and cohesion among members, and synchronizes group actions, emotions and identities (Merriam, 1964; Turnbull, 1966; Lomax, 1968; Hood, 1971; Seeger, 1987; Feld, 1994; McNeill, 1995; Trevarthen, 1999; Cross, 2001, p. 37; Levitin, 2006, p. 258; Brandt, 2008, pp. 6–7).

In his article, Music, Neuroscience, and the Psychology of Well-Being: A Precis, Croom (2011) argues that "synchronized chorusing has been found in certain species of insects (Greenfield and Shaw, 1983) and frogs (Klump and Gerhardt, 1992), and fireflies have been shown to synchronize their bioluminescent flashing at night (Buck, 1988). Researchers have also found that there are at least several hundred species of birds that perform precisely synchronized duets in order to stay in sync reproductively, strengthen partnership bonds, or defend territories (Brown, 2000b, p. 247). So it is plausible, many group selectionists argue, that musical behavior likewise evolved in humans to unite individuals into groups and strengthen partnership bonds (ibid). “Singing, marching, and laughing tunes the group,” as Seligman (2011) says"

Furthermore he argues that being in a musical group or band serves as a means of creating close relationships since rehearsal of a musical piece provides band members with a common purpose. It also means that members spend a lot of time with each other working towards a common goal. Participation in music, says Croom, is participation with, and commitment to, other people. In this sense music is a fundamentally social activity, and it is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that playing music confers social, as well as cognitive and neurological benefits.

So, to take us right back to where we started, what would you say if I told you there was an exercise that, if practiced daily, would increase your IQ, improve your attention and cognitive function, increase your pain threshold, improve your fine motor control, facilitate your language acquisition and verbal fluency, facilitate social cohesion, improve your mood and reduce fatigue, have a similar effect to Ritalin for ADD patients and provide a basis for gait training in stroke and Parkinson's patients? Would you do it? Would you implement it in your school or workplace? I have presented a wealth of evidence that learning to play a musical instrument and doing so as part of a musical group confers these and other benefits. Of course you may respond that learning an instrument is hard and requires years of dedicated practice before one can play coherently as a member of a group. While this is broadly true there are at least two musical activities that can be accessed immediately: Singing and drumming.

While learning to play hand-drums is a skill that is no easier than learning to play any other instrument, it is something that can be accessed very quickly by beginners. Whereas on a guitar one has to train ones fingers to play several chords before music can be accessed (and I know, from personal experience, that this takes a certain amount of time, effort, and pain) pretty much anyone can be taught to play a simple rhythm on a hand drum such as a djembe, and to play it as part of a group. As a drum workshop facilitator I regularly give that experience to groups who claim not to have a musical bone in their body. I do workshops with children as young as five as well as team-building sessions with adults who have never played a musical instrument and all, without exception, are playing music as part of a group within 10 minutes!

So read back over the research discussed in this article and ask yourself this: If you could find a single activity that could confer all these benefits wouldn't you be mad not to incorporate it into your daily routine? Wouldn't you jump at the chance to implement it in your school, place of work or community?

Well the activity is learning to drum as part of a group and there are musicians such as myself all over the country who facilitate high quality African drumming and rhythm workshops for schools, community and team-building. Drumming might not be a miracle cure, but if you could put all those benefits in a bottle it would sure look like one!

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