An ear for music and languages… or a brain?

Friday, November 15th, 2013

We all know people who have a knack for languages or an uncanny ability to remember a new song but what is it about these folks that makes it easier for them to learn that new language or recognize a song? Robert Zatorre at the Montreal Neurological Institute investigates how exactly these affinities work in the brain.

As neuroscience research has made clear over the past decade, learning — be it a new language, a new song, or a new mechanical skill — changes the brain’s cortical structure and white matter. Speech and music are both complex auditory motor functions that involve many cognitive tasks and learning a new language or a new instrument results in significant changes to the cortical structures of the brain.

In a recent article in Science, Zatorre discusses research demonstrating that, because of a predisposition for certain kinds of sensory input, the brains of people with a facility for music and language have to work less hard to detect differences in musical or linguistic pitches.

Fig. 1, demonstrating oxygen level activity in the brain in response to hearing differences in pitch.

Fig. 1, demonstrating oxygen level activity in the brain in response to hearing differences in pitch.

As Zatorre tells Science in a podcast accompanying the article, he and his colleagues examined brain scans of individuals who were asked to detect very small pitch changes in a melody. Those who showed a better response in their auditory cortex to the pitch changes were also the ones who learned to discriminate the sounds more quickly.

These brain scan results “don’t mean that I can take a brain scan and tell you what abilities you’re going to have and what career you should choose,” Zatorre cautions. “We don’t know the source of the individual variability… and it is almost certainly the case that a lot depends on the sort of epigenetic processes that occur during childhood or adulthood as well.”

However, he adds, such research can contribute to better understandings of neurodiversity. “Because different people have different brains, it may turn out that [they] require different types of training to achieve the same goal.”
This could have implications for education curricula as well as rehabilitation of patients who have a certain kind of damage or disorder.
“We each have a unique brain, without which the world would be a very boring place indeed,” Zatorre concludes. “It will be up to us to use our increasing knowledge of this uniqueness in productive ways.”
Read more in the Connection, Connection, Connection… special issue of Science, which also includes a podcast interview with Robert Zatorre.  

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