Research shows that speaking more than one language — including the language of music — has protective effects on the brain.
Can you train your brain to perform more efficiently? If you’re learning another language or studying how to read music, yes, according to science. Studies show that those two activities expand the brain in a way that makes it more efficient, allowing it to complete tasks faster using less brain power.
People who are bilingual or have a musical background were shown to activate different brain networks than those who only spoke one language or did not play musical instruments when they were asked to identify sounds, according to a study from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. They also showed less brain activity to complete the task.
“These findings show that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform the same task, which could also protect them against cognitive decline and delay the onset of dementia,” says Dr. Claude Alain, first author of the paper and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
“Our results also demonstrated that a person’s experiences, whether it’s learning how to play a musical instrument or another language, can shape how the brain functions and which networks are used.”
In the 2018 study, published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers asked three groups of people—bilinguals, musicians and people who spoke one language and played no instruments—to identify whether a sound they played for them was the same as a previous sound, using clips of music instruments, human speech and sounds from nature. They were also asked to identify which direction the sound was coming from.
Musicians were able to identify the sound faster than the other groups, and both bilinguals and musicians were better at identifying which direction the sound was coming from. And regardless of the time it took, brain scans showed that bilinguals and musicians used less of their brain to identify the sound.
Learning a new language
“People who speak two languages may take longer to process sounds since the information is run through two language libraries rather than just one,” says Alain. “During this task, the brains of bilinguals showed greater signs of activation in areas that are known for speech comprehension, supporting this theory.”
Speaking two languages is obviously beneficial in a practical sense, but the results from this study join other evidence that it helps protect the brain from decline. Bilingualism can help extend the years that a brain remains healthy—one study showed that it translated to a five-year delay in Alzheimer’s onset when compared to those who only spoke one language. And speaking another language can actually change the physical structure of your brain to make it thicker with more grey matter.
Playing — or even listening to — music
Being musical, too, has been shown to have positive effects on the brain. In one study, people who played an instrument for at least ten years were better at mental tasks as they aged. Other studies have shown that music has the same effect on the brain’s cortical thickness as learning another language.
UPDATE: 00:57, 14 February, 2023 — This article from May 2018 has been updated with new information to help our readers.