It’s probably not what you think, but it’s scientifically demonstrated to improve how you think.
Turns out that’s wrong.
Neuroscience is demonstrating that brain functioning is actually far more fluid than previously believed.
For example, research out of the University of Zurich shows that doing one simple thing can actually raise a person’s IQ. And we’re not just talking about children, whose brains are usually considered more pliable than those of adults. This works for both kids and adults – even those of advanced age.
So what’s the trick? Is it using flash cards to learn more advanced words?
No. It’s also not meditation, solving a Rubik’s Cube, or taking ginkgo biloba (though none of those could hurt).
It’s learning to play a musical instrument.
That’s right — playing music significantly improves brain functioning, and can raise your IQ by seven or more points.
According to psychologist Lutz Jäncke, “even in people over the age of 65, after four or five months of playing an instrument for an hour a week, there were strong changes in the brain.” Jäncke went on to list memory, hearing, and motor function centers (specifically related to the hands) as parts of the brain that became more active.
“Essentially,” Jäncke concluded, “the architecture of the brain changes.”
That’s significant. It means that not only did participants enjoy physical improvements, they actually changed the structure of their brains.
Thus not only are we wrong about intelligence being fixed, but we have the power to change our own brains for the better. And playing an instrument is one of the best ways to do so.
Here are three advantages to learning to play:
1. It conserves gray matter.
Gray matter helps preserve the structural integrity of the brain, especially as it pertains to executive functioning (self-control and decision making), as well as memory, emotion, speech, muscle control, and seeing and hearing.
Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug showed that the brains of musicians have more gray matter than those who don’t play an instrument. Significantly, he also demonstrated that participants who practiced as little as a few hours a week showed significant increases in memory capacity after just four months.
In other words, you could improve your brain by summer’s end, simply by practicing an instrument a few hours a week.
2. It reduces stress.
Everyone knows stress is terrible for you. Among other things, research links it to increased blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and a heightened risk of stroke.
Playing music relaxes both the body and the brain, as attention becomes focused on one single, right-brained activity. It also releases dopamine in the brain, the same chemical released during sex, drug use, and eating delicious food.
Imagine coming home from a stressful day at work and instead of zoning out with Netflix, doing something that’s not just fun and creative but effortlessly flexes and enhances your brain.
3. It improves your language abilities.
When you play an instrument, you improve your ability to “keep the beat,” which facilitates your capacity to process auditory information. This is why those who take music lessons are better at learning foreign languages.
Again, research shows that results are age-independent. A study by USF’s Jennifer Bugos showed that after six months of taking piano lessons, people 60 to 85 years old demonstrated significant advances in executive functioning like planning and information processing, memory recall, and verbal acuity — language skills.
When it comes to the brain, there’s no such thing as too little or too late.
In our left-brain-obsessed culture, we tend to associate learning, growth, and increased intelligence with school. Yet neuroscience suggests just the opposite: that what we actually need more of isn’t work, it’s play.
So go ahead — buy that keyboard you’ve been thinking about for years.
Try out the fiddle.
Take up guitar.
And if your loved ones complain about your newfound love of the drums, just tell them you’re “engaging in neuroplasticity.”
As Bono once said, “music can change the world because it can change people.”