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Last Updated on January 17, 2018

Science Says Piano Players’ Brains Are Very Different From Everybody Else’s

Science Says Piano Players’ Brains Are Very Different From Everybody Else’s

The piano is a beautiful instrument. Its players often come across as mysterious; these people who have spent hundreds of hours practicing scales and repeating phrases over and over again to reach sheer aural perfection. To an audience member it can have a similar effect to watching a magic trick or a ballet: it is so skilled and beautiful it almost seems impossible, a feat of the Gods.

But what is going on underneath all of this hard work and magic? It certainly isn’t luck that such an effect can be made.

The little bolts of electricity running through their neurons as they play are not connected the same way as concert goers’. Piano players brains even work differently than the way musicians’ are wired [1]. And this is all because of the instrument they are playing. The piano makes them and their brains unique.

So, read on, and don’t say I didn’t warn you (especially if you have a big-headed pianist in the family!)…that pianists’ brains are different than everyone else’s. Here’s how:

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    Photo credit: Source

    Piano players are more balanced

    This stands to reason. Pianists are born (like all of us) with one side of the brain being favored more than the other. This is not unusual; everyone has a natural preference for which hand we prefer holding our pen in or eating our cereal with (from a young age). The difference here is that pianists begin practicing using both parts of the brain when mastering the use of each hand whilst playing.

    If one hand were to be weaker than the other, playing the piano would not work. Without skill in both it can end up sounding clunky and unbalanced, at best. This necessity to practice and to master both hands means that the brain effectively evens itself out [2]. With practice, despite each player having a naturally stronger hand when they begin, by the time they have become an expert, the weaker hand is strengthened to the same degree as the stronger one.

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    Piano players are more logical multitaskers

    A piano player also more easily creates a link between their frontal lobes. But what does this mean?

    Basically, this handy part of the brain contains control of emotional responses, social behaviors and even impulses, so it’s handy if you have easier access to it than most.

    This also means that pianists are likely to have stronger problem solving and multi-tasking skills and be able to tap into their creativity with greater ease, too.

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      Piano players are more free to express their authentic selves

      One study by Dr. Ana Pinho[3] found that when playing, the well practiced players would turn off the part of the brain that offers stereotypical brain responses. This allows them to play the true expression of who they are and what they want to ‘say’ with their music, rather than some copycat phrasing. (This could be a very useful skill if transferred to life and everyday situations, where the advice of ‘just be yourself’ might work with these dexterously fingered individuals.)

      Piano players are able to use their brain’s energy more effectively

      Less energy is used in the motor skills section of the brain. It seems once you have mastered your craft, your brain simply needs less blood and oxygen sent to this section, thus freeing up energy for other parts of playing, like phrasing and emotional connection to the song.

      Piano players are well practised at conversing (though not in a language we are used to using everyday)

      In the study by Dr. Charles Limb[4], when pianists improvise, it was found that the parts of the brain containing the language center lit up unexpectedly. Despite being a motor skill, when riffing in a call and response style, players are actually talking to each other!

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      So, that’s it! Basically, pianists are awesome! And I would encourage anyone to try out just five minutes a day of playing if you ever have a piano or keyboard near you. Who knows, you might become the next Rachmaninov, or even Chopin. Or you might simply remember where you put your car keys.

        Photo credit: Source

        Featured photo credit: Focus Features Media, The Pianist via focusfeaturesmedia.com

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        Daniel Owen van Dommelen

        Coder, Director, Writer, Human

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        Last Updated on September 10, 2018

        Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

        Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

        We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

        Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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        Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

        Looking at images of loved ones

        While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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        In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

        Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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        Exercise

        Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

        Meditation

        Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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        In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

        When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

        With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

        Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

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