Music’s Astonishing Effect on Long-Term Memory

The mesmerizing effect of music on people’s cognitive abilities was recently made clearer by researchers.

Professional musicians have better long-term memory and faster cognitive response than non-musicians, a new University of Texas at Arlington psychology study found.

“Musically trained people are known to process linguistic materials a split second faster than those without training, and previous research also has shown musicians have advantages in working memory,” said study leader Heekyeong Park. “What we wanted to know is whether there are differences between pictorial and verbal tasks and whether any advantages extend to long-term memory. If proven, those advantages could represent an intervention option to explore for people with cognitive challenges.”

Park, assistant professor of psychology, along with graduate student James Schaeffer used electroencephalography (EEG) and measured the electrical activity of neurons in the brain.

Working Memory Advantages

14 musicians and 15 non-musicians were studied for processing differences in the frontal and parietal lobe responses.

“Musically trained people are known to process linguistic materials a split second faster than those without training, and previous research also has shown musicians have advantages in working memory,” said Park. “What we wanted to know is whether there are differences between pictorial and verbal tasks and whether any advantages extend to long-term memory. If proven, those advantages could represent an intervention option to explore for people with cognitive challenges.”

In its research on human cognitive neuroscience, Park’s laboratory employs high tech imaging tools. These include EEG, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).

In order to examine working memory, the study participants were asked to select pictorial or verbal items that they’d just been given among similar lures. For long-term memory, participants judged whether each test item was studied or new after the entire study session was complete.

Superior Image Memory

By: LadyDragonflyCC

All the musicians had been playing classical music for more than 15 years. They outperformed non-musicians in EEG-measured neural responses on the working memory tasks.

However, when long-term memory was tested, the enhanced sensitivity was only found in memory for pictures.

It is not yet clear why these advantages develop. Park believes it is possible professional musicians become more skilled at taking in and processing a host of pictorial cues as they continually read and memorize musical scores.

According to Park’s paper, musicians’ neural responses in the mid-frontal part of the brain were 300 to 500 milliseconds faster than non musicians. Additionally, responses in the parietal lobe were 400 to 800 milliseconds faster than non musicians.

The parietal lobe is directly behind the frontal lobe of the brain and is important for perceptual processing, attention and memory.

The results of this study add to the evidence that music training is an effective way to improve cognitive abilities,

J. Schaeffer, R. Meahl, H. Park
An ERP study of memory differences between musicians versus non-musicians
Presentation Abstract 646.06/SS5 Neuroscience 2014

Toiviainen, P., Alluri, V., Brattico, E., Wallentin, M., & Vuust, P. (2013).
Capturing the musical brain with Lasso: dynamic decoding of musical features from fMRI data.”
Neuroimage. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.11.017

The Music of Power: Perceptual and Behavioral Consequences of Powerful Music
Social Psychological and Personality Science 5 August 2014: 1948550614542345v1-1948550614542345.

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