Brain Training

Why does music training increase intelligence?

We know that music training causes intelligence to increase, but why? In this post I 1) propose a new theory, and 2) falsify it immediately. Given that this particular combination of activities is unpublishable in any academic journal, I invite you to read the whole story here (in under 500 words).

1) Proposing the ISAML

Incredible but true, music lessons improve the one thing that determines why people who are good on one task tend to be better on another task as well: IQ (Schellenberg, 2004; Kaviani et al., 2013; see coverage in previous blog post). Curiously, I have never seen an explanation for why music training would benefit intelligence.

I propose the Improved Sustained Attention through Music Lessons hypothesis (ISAML). The ISAML hypothesis claims that all tasks related to intelligence are dependent to some degree on people attending to them continuously. This ability is called sustained attention. A lapse of attention, caused by insufficient sustained attention, leads to suboptimal answers on IQ tests. Given that music is related to the structuring of attention (Boltz & Jones, 1989) and removes attentional ‘gaps’ (Olivers & Nieuwenhuis, 2005; see coverage in previous blog post), music training might help in attentional control and, thus, in increasing sustained attention. This in turn might have a positive impact on intelligence, see boxes and arrows in Figure 1.


Figure 1. The Improved Sustained Attention through Music Lessons hypothesis (ISAML) in a nutshell. Arrows represent positive associations.

The ISAML does not predict that intelligence is the same as sustained attention. Instead, it predicts that:

a) music training increases sustained attention

b) sustained attention is associated with intelligence

c) music training increases intelligence

2) Evaluating the ISAML

Prediction c is already supported, see above. Does anyone know something about prediction b? Here, I shall evaluate prediction a: does music training increase sustained attention? So far, the evidence looks inconclusive (Carey et al., 2015). Therefore, I will turn to a data set of my own which I gathered in a project together with Suzanne R. Jongman (Kunert & Jongman, in press).

We used a standard test of sustained attention: the digit discrimination test (Jongman et al., 2015). Participants had the mind-boggingly boring task of clicking a button every time they saw a zero while watching one single digit after another on the screen for ten minutes. A low sustained attention ability is thought to be reflected by worse performance (higher reaction time to the digit zero) at the end of the testing session compared to the beginning, or by overall high reaction times.

Unfortunately for the ISAML, it turns out that there is absolutely no relation between musical training and sustained attention. As you can see in Figure 2A, the reaction time (logged) decrement between the first and last half of reactions to zeroes is not related to musical training years [Pearson r = .03, N = 362, p = .61, 95% CI = [-.076; .129], JZS BF01 with default prior = 7.59; Spearman rho = .05]. Same for mean reaction time (logged), see Figure 2B [Pearson r = .02, N = 362, p = .74, 95% CI = [-0.861; 0.120], JZS BF01 = 8.181; Spearman rho = 0.03].


Figure 2. The correlation between two different measures of sustained attention (vertical axes) and musical training (horizontal axes) in a sample of 362 participants. High values on vertical axes represent low sustained attention, i.e. the ISAML predicts a negative correlation coefficient. Neither correlation is statistically significant. Light grey robust regression lines show an iterated least squares regression which reduces the influence of unusual data points.

3) Conclusion

Why on earth is musical training related to IQ increases? I have no idea. The ISAML is not a good account for the intelligence boost provided by music lessons.

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Carey, D., Rosen, S., Krishnan, S., Pearce, M., Shepherd, A., Aydelott, J., & Dick, F. (2015). Generality and specificity in the effects of musical expertise on perception and cognition Cognition, 137, 81-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.12.005

Jongman, S., Meyer, A., & Roelofs, A. (2015). The Role of Sustained Attention in the Production of Conjoined Noun Phrases: An Individual Differences Study PLOS ONE, 10 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0137557

Jones, M., & Boltz, M. (1989). Dynamic attending and responses to time. Psychological Review, 96 (3), 459-491 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.459

Kaviani, H., Mirbaha, H., Pournaseh, M., & Sagan, O. (2013). Can music lessons increase the performance of preschool children in IQ tests? Cognitive Processing, 15 (1), 77-84 DOI: 10.1007/s10339-013-0574-0

Kunert R, & Jongman SR (2017). Entrainment to an auditory signal: Is attention involved? Journal of experimental psychology. General, 146 (1), 77-88 PMID: 28054814

Olivers, C., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2005). The Beneficial Effect of Concurrent Task-Irrelevant Mental Activity on Temporal Attention Psychological Science, 16 (4), 265-269 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01526.x

Glenn Schellenberg, E. (2004). Music Lessons Enhance IQ Psychological Science, 15 (8), 511-514 DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00711.x

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Computer Gaming = Mental Training?

A mental trainer.

Computer gaming often gets a bad press. It gets linked to brutal murders (school shootings in Columbine, US  and Winnenden, Germany , the massacre on Utoya and in Oslo, Norway ), gang culture, physical decline and death, brain degeneration, and low productivity. Susan Greenfield, a neurophysiologist and something of a celebrity scientist in the UK, links them to aggression, recklessness, and a decline in prosocial behaviour. However, there is also a growing literature on cognitive benefits resulting from the mental training provided by ordinary computer games. How good is the evidence for these positive side effects of being hooked on a video game?
The start of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ argument can be traced back to an article published in Nature in 2003. In it, Green and Bavelier claimed to have found evidence for bigger and better attentional resources in video game players compared to non-players. For example, in one task participants were asked to count squares briefly flashed on a screen. There are two ways to solve this task: subitizing, i.e. immediately ‘seeing’ the right number as after having rolled a die, and counting. Video game players could subitize more items than non-players. However, some may argue that perhaps only people with better attention get drawn to computer games in the first place. Green and Bavelier (2003) addressed this issue by training people for one hour a day over ten days on either Medal of Honor – an action game – or Tetris – a control game. Only the action game trained participants’ visual attention improved. The conclusion appears clear: forget about tedious, commercial brain trainers, play action games to boost your attention abilities.
However, has the effect stood the test of time? Last year Boot and colleagues reviewed the literature and reported that researchers found out that gamers are superior to non-gamers in terms of various mental faculties: mental rotation, visual acuity, decision making, etc. Studies finding a relation greatly outnumber those which don’t. Furthermore, training studies are rarer but generally also find positive associations between action game ‘training’ and many of the aforementioned cognitive abilities. It looks like it is time to write a letter to all the fear mongers who link action video gaming to all sorts of social problems … not so fast.

Would you notice the difference to a mental trainer?

Has the effect stood the test of science? Even though the aforementioned studies were published in reputable scientific journals and apparently stood the test of time Boot and colleagues (2011) are critical of the claims of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ field. For starters, most studies compare gamers to non-gamers and with this approach you never know what caused what (e.g., people get trained by computer games, or superior people get drawn to computer games) or whether giving people the feeling of being an expert already enhances their performance.
The latter criticism also applies to training studies. In clinical trials of new medications, participants are not aware what condition they are in – whether they receive the real pill or the sugar pill. In game training studies, on the other hand, participants always know the game they are playing, obviously. Why would this be a problem? Tetris involves mental rotation but does not involve attentional demands. Medal of Honor in many ways is the reverse. If you were a participant and told to predict which training would benefit attentional abilities, what would you say? Just the expectation of improvement may drive the observed changes, i.e. a placebo effect. In sum, there currently isn’t very convincing evidence for the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ account.
Still, the accumulated evidence is at least suggestive of real cognitive improvements. So, instead of looking in fear at brain washed gaming geeks on the verge of violent outbursts, we should perhaps envy them for their superior mental abilities.
One moment. There is still the issue of those negative side effects. There, it turns out that a recent review by Hall and colleagues (2011) found the literature to be split between studies claiming a gaming-aggression link and those that do not. Even meta-analyses on this issue do not agree with each other. Furthermore, there are also substantial methodological issues in this field (Adachi and Willoughby, 2011).
My message to gamers: game on.
Adachi, P.J.C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of violent video games on aggression: Is it more than just the violence? Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 16, 55-62. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002
Boot, W.R., Blakely, D.P., & Simons, D.J. (2011). Do action video games improve perception and cognition? Frontiers in Psychology, 2,1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226
Green, C.S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537. doi:10.1038/nature01647
Hall, R.C.W., Day, T., & Hall, R.C.W. (2011). A Plea for Caution: Violent Video Games, the Supreme Court, and the Role of Science. Mayo Clinical Proceedings, 86, 315-321. doi:10.4065.mcp.2010.0762