Sunday’s Grammy Awards will celebrate the most accomplished musicians of our time, though a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University said music is a gift to almost anyone who can carry a tune. In fact, he says our brains are hard-wired into the benefits of music.
From that point of view, the Grammy Award nominees can be especially brainy.
“It turns out that practicing a musical instrument can be one of the most difficult and challenging things the human brain can do,” he says. Larry Sherman, Ph.D., a professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU. “You’re integrating sensory and fine motor skills, gross motor skills. You’re holding your instrument, moving your fingers. You’re doing all these things, and it’s rewiring your brain to the point where you’re actually a Grammy-nominated musician. You can be.”
Sherman, who has given presentations on the benefits of music and co-authored a forthcoming book on the subject, says that practicing music can help generate neurons, strengthen connections between brain cells called synapses, and rebuild myelin sheaths. Transmission of electrical signals between cells.
“It’s amazing what our brains are doing,” he says. “It’s rewiring itself and rebuilding itself every time we practice music.”
He says, ‘Singing together in a group is more beneficial. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that music triggers a cascade of neurotransmitters, such as endorphins and dopamine, that are associated with positive emotions. These neurotransmitters can reduce pain and promote a sense of communal connection. The bigger the group, the bigger the impact.
“I always tell people, if we can get Congress to sing together,” Sherman says.
Sherman says there is a case to be made that the communal activity of playing music has bound human communities together for thousands of years.
“The fact that we found flutes in Neanderthal caves means something,” he says.
Sherman’s own research focuses on neurodegeneration, particularly in conditions like multiple sclerosis where myelin, the protective covering around nerve fibers in the central nervous system, is damaged. He has also worked to popularize neuroscience through a series of public presentations incorporating his personal interest in music.
Since his initial joint appearance with Grammy-nominated singer Valerie Day and jazz pianist Darrell Grant in Portland in 2008, Sherman has spoken regularly on neuroscience around music, love, chocolate and even racism through venues like Science on Tap. He has performed more than 300 times in seven countries including Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, Canada and America.
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