One of my greatest inspirations was my late father Laurence Sisson. He supported our family as a painter, especially watercolor paintings of natural scenes in New England. His work ethic was insane, as was his creative genius. But my most prominent memories of him are not those that I spent in the art studio to see beautiful displays of the glory of nature before my eyes. No, I remember most of the evenings at the piano.
He was also a great jazz pianist and often took up paid work as a musician when time required. During the holidays he played classics. On quiet afternoons he noodled on the keys. Piano music was the backdrop to the house. And I am convinced that playing the piano kept his brain nimble to the end.
Music and brain function
If you spend any time on social media at all, you’ve likely seen the videos of otherwise unresponsive Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patients that light up when a favorite piece of music from their younger years is played.
There is this one where an old man is brought to life on his last legs in a nursing home. After listening to some of his favorite music, he reacts incredibly quickly and answers questions about himself and his life. Music gives him access to the parts of his brain that were previously locked out, at least for a brief moment.
The last one I saw is a former New York prima ballerina with Alzheimer’s disease. When she hears “Swan Lake,” she waves to turn up the volume and then from her chair begins choreographing – the same dance she mastered and performed over 50 years ago. As I write and imagine this, I feel tears from the beauty of the moment.
Most of you reading this are not in a cognitive situation, but you can probably relate to the effects music can have on our brains. We all felt the power of music. When this song comes up and catapults you into a bygone era of your youth. When you listen to an album and actually smell the smells, taste the taste and feel the emotions it evokes in you. Something powerful is happening in the brain and we shouldn’t wait for the degeneration to set in.
When we know that there are certain lifestyle, diet, and behavior changes that can improve a patient’s outlook for dementia, it is even more effective and effective to make those changes before dementia occurs. Music is a possibility.
And if just listening to music can have this effect on cognitive function, even severely degenerate cognitive functions, what can playing music – creating with your own mind – do about it?
Play an instrument for brain health
Indeed, we have evidence that playing an instrument protects brain health and function.
In a recent study, researchers asked 23 former orchestra musicians if they or a musician they knew had dementia. There were no dementia rates among the musicians surveyed, and none of them knew of other musicians who had the disease.
Another study found that in older cognitively intact adults, those with a history of musical training had better episodic memory scores. Those who could read music had better episodic memories and better semantic verbal fluency. Specifically, the researchers controlled IQ so this wasn’t just an intelligence test.
Another previous study had similar results and found that older adults with at least 10 years of history as musicians performed better on a range of cognitive tests than those with no experience. They didn’t control IQ, but they did control educational attainment, which is a decent barometer of intelligence (although there are definitely exceptions).
What about more direct attempts? Can we show that playing instruments can actually produce changes in brain function?
Recent research shows that music practice, which forces our brains to work in a completely different way than normal waking reality, makes an important contribution to neural plasticity. Just two weeks of piano practice lead to neuroanatomical changes in the auditory cortex in non-musicians. It can also reduce or prevent the age-related deterioration of the Broca area, a part of the brain that is partially responsible for producing speech that is often damaged in dementia. The same protective effect was observed in the auditory cortex, which, among other things, controls the speech recognition of aging musicians. All of these changes mean great potential benefits for people with age-related cognitive dysfunction, but there are benefits for younger brains as well.
Research has found that children who take music training have spikes in IQ, verbal memory, and language skills even when the control group is made up of children from otherwise similar backgrounds (socioeconomic status, academics, etc.), with the exception of music training. This doesn’t prove that playing instruments changes the brain or improves its function, but it’s pretty suggestive.
Playing an instrument to achieve flow status
Flow doesn’t happen when you’re struggling. It doesn’t happen when you trip over your own fingers or have to concentrate so hard that you start sweating and causing stress. Flow occurs when you know the material and the instrument so well that you merge with it and become one. When you get lost in the music and in the sense of time. If you learn an instrument, you are unlikely to reach the flow very reliably. To trigger a flow state, play something that you are good at. Something to get lost in, whether it’s a Chopin prelude or a simple hand drum beat. It all depends on your skill level.
However, achieving this flow state is one of the main advantages of the brain when playing an instrument. It’s instant mindfulness where you turn off the troubled brain and just exist in the present moments as they unfold. If you wanted to meditate but have had no luck with typical sitting meditation, go to a place where you can groove, jam, or play an instrument for an extended period of time.
Playing an instrument to relieve stress
One of the biggest barriers to brain function is chronic stress. A little stress can help – if anything, acute spikes in stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol can temporarily increase cognition and awareness. However, a chronic increase in these hormones destroys cognition. Studies show that playing music can reduce stress. In addition, anything that puts you in the flow state almost usually reduces the stress. I could go into more detail with even more extensive quotations, but instead I’ll tell you about the drums.
I may not be that good, but man is my electric drums. I keep a stress reliever in the office. I plug in earphones, start a rock song on my iPad, and then plug the headphones into the drum Kit about it and howl for an hour and a half almost every night. A legend in my own head (the only ghost that matters). If you walked into the room while I was doing this, you would only hear Pita playing a pitta tap tap softly. But in the headphones I kill it. Highly recommended.
Playing an instrument for luck
No, that’s not sexy. No online e-courses are sold. You will not gain clout and “happy” cannot be quantified even if you start quoting neurochemicals. But happiness is. When you get things straight, most people will refer to “being happy” as an important long-term goal. It’s not all, you need sense and drive and also a mission, but moment to moment happiness is really important for brain health.
Playing an instrument is magic
If magic exists, music is for you. It can change your emotions in no time. It can evoke vivid memories, even those that were previously calcified and inaccessible via normal recognition modes. It can capture and even change the energy of the room. It makes people move their bodies without realizing or wanting to. Music cannot be touched or felt, only heard; it is real but immaterial, abstract but verifiable. And when you make music and swing the instrument, you become a magician.
Whatever you do, don’t wait any longer. Pick up the instrument you’ve been thinking about and look for it. In the last few years I have recorded the piano and used the DrumsBut man, there’s a HUGE difference between trying to learn my age and trying to learn as a kid. Wanting to talk about compound interest, learning music (or really any skill) as a kid is a relatively small initial investment that quickly gains in value. And above all, it never loses value. You learn the thing when your brain is still physically developing and the thing is becoming embedded in the physical structure of your brain. It is almost impossible to forget such a skill. I wish I had that about music. If you have this opportunity, take it.
Do you play any instruments? How has that affected your brain health, as far as you can tell?
Thanks for reading everyone. Watch out!
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with an original lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component in achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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