Neuro-education: Yep, it’s as cool as it sounds

Can music training improve verbal ability?

Photo Credit: Jeff Johnson

I attended a talk last week given by Sylvain Moreno. He talked about the project he’s been working on, and I thought, “Some people get to do the coolest research”. Dr. Moreno has created a music training intervention and is now testing the intervention’s effects. In a show of scientific rigor, he had a control group who underwent a similarly structured intervention, but the control intervention was based on visual art training rather than musical training. Especially with kids, it’s crucial to have a control group because pretty much all kids get better at lots of stuff just by growing older. So the fact that this study included a control group – and a reasonably matched one at that – made me very happy.

What did they found? They found that kids in the musical training group improved their vocabulary score (which is often taken as a measure of verbal intelligence) more than the kids in the visual art training group. He also found that this effect was not true for their “block design” score (a subtest of the IQ test that is often taken as a measure of non-verbal IQ). Also, the kids in the music group improved significantly on a test that measure the ability to learn mapping symbols to words (a measure that can be viewed as a “pre-literacy” skill, because when you learn to read you have to map arbitrary symbols – written words – to the sound of words you already know).

What I think is critical in their findings is that children in the musical training group improved significantly in their “hit” rates of the go/no-go task. The hit rates are thought to represent the ability to “stay on task” (remembering the point of the task – called goal maintenance – and keeping your attention on the task – called sustained attention). I think it’s very likely that this finding is the underlying explanation. The music training teaches kids to listen carefully. It teaches them that there is important information in all auditory input, not just words. So the kids learn to pay attention. Then, they are better at staying on task, and so they are better at doing the symbol-mapping task, which is kind of boring. And it’s possible that they pay attention more and learn more words, although the time lapse between pre- and post-test in this study was about 40 days, and I doubt they learned significantly more words. It’s far more likely that the teacher who taught the music group was more focused on vocabulary. Of course, this is my interpretation, and in order to test these hypotheses more data would need to be collected. But that’s how science works – Dr. Moreno will no doubt continue to study the effects of his intervention (which sounds pretty cool, by the way, I was looking to see if I could get it in the form of an iPad app), and perhaps in a couple of years he will prove me wrong. And then someone else will have to figure out another explanation for this effect. And the more we study it, the more we know about the link between music and vocabulary and literacy.

So what’s the link to neuro-education? Well, the study also used ERP data and showed that the electric output of the brain changed in a certain way after the music training. To me that’s less interesting than the behavioural data. But if you think differently, by all means let me know and we can talk about this more! 🙂

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