Th`k: Music as a Catalyst for Higher Order Thinking
Music as a Catalyst for Higher Order Thinking
Music has long been part of the human experience, bringing joy and comfort to people from all walks of life. And the benefits go beyond just feel-good entertainment, according research in music psychology and neuroscience.
Higher order thinking involves the ability to think critically, make connections between ideas, and come up with new solutions. Let's explore the science behind why practicing music can be a generative force for emotional and creative growth.
Musical training broadens and builds cognitive flexibility
The Broaden and Build theory in positive psychology1 suggests that positive emotions, such as those elicited by music and art, can broaden and build our individual capabilities and skills, leading to more creative problem-solving. In fact, a growing body of work supports the link between musical training and cognitive flexibility, a key component of creativity. One study2 found that individuals with musical training have enhanced cognitive flexibility, generating more unique ideas and performing better in tasks that require non-linear thinking. Even if you don't have formal musical training, you can still reap the benefits of music as a creative catalyst: simply listening to music can improve cognitive flexibility. For those with more musical experience, the effects are even greater, with musically-trained individuals showing the greatest improvement after listening to music.
Another study published in the Journal of Creative Behavior3 examined the link between musical training and neuroplasticity. The authors found evidence that enhanced neural connectivity helps musicians excel at non-linear thinking in tasks that require using both sides of the brain. The study also suggests that musical training may have a neuroprotective effect by increasing gray matter in the brain, which may have implications for using music as a therapeutic tool in neurological disorders.
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Musicians excel at non-linear thinking with both sides of the brain
Neuroscience shows that musicians have unique brain structures and neural pathways compared to non-musicians. One difference is in the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Because music engages the whole brain, requiring the integration of language, memory, and emotion, it enhances musicians' ability to approach problems in a non-linear fashion and make connections between ideas that don't normally go together.
One study4 explored higher order thinking, which involves complex mental activities such as problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brain activity of musicians and non-musicians while they performed a musical task. The results showed that musicians had greater functional connectivity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain compared to non-musicians, particularly in brain regions involved in higher order brain functioning.
Collectively, the research suggests that musical training can enhance cognitive abilities beyond music. This phenomenon, known as the Mozart Effect, has been observed in numerous studies, including one that found listening to Mozart's music temporarily improved spatial reasoning abilities5. While the exact mechanisms behind the Mozart Effect are still unclear and require further investigation, it's clear that music can help us tap into our "zone of genius." Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist and believed that playing music was essential to his scientific work. His contributions are testament to the value of lateral thinking - blending intuition with analytical thinking - thanks to his training as a musician and scientist.
The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.
Music builds our empathy muscles, breaking down barriers between "us" and "them"
Susan Rogers and Daniel Levitin, both professors, authors, and pioneering researchers in the field of music perception and cognition, have conducted neurobiological research showing that music activates feelings of social connections and empathy. Their research shows that music can foster authentic connections between people, making it a powerful tool for creative collaborations within a team.
One of Rogers' studies6 demonstrated that individuals with musical training are better at identifying emotions in music, and this ability is linked to differences in brain activity. The findings imply that musical training can enhance emotional intelligence and empathy, which are essential traits for creative work.
Additional research has highlighted the relationship between music and empathy, with a meta-analysis conducted in 2019 providing particularly compelling evidence7. The study analyzed a vast array of research on music-induced emotions and empathy for music, and concluded that music can enhance emotional awareness and social cognition. The authors found that music can help people to better understand and identify emotions in others, and can also increase feelings of empathy and interpersonal connection.
Music is one of the most powerful means we have for connecting with others, bridging gaps of language, culture, and background. In a time when division and polarization are all too common, music can serve as a unifying force, reminding us of our shared humanity and fostering greater empathy and understanding.
Daniel Levitin (2020)
Coda: Thinking inside the music box can amplify higher order thinking
Learning and practicing music is a cognitively-demanding activity that engages multiple brain regions, which may explain why musical training has a wide range of effects on cognition and mood. Engaging with music can raise emotional intelligence and encourage higher order thinking, even if you're not a musician. Music fosters social connections, promoting a sense of community among individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures, even at a neurological level. This is particularly important in light of the current loneliness epidemic.
Whether through learning an instrument, singing, or simply listening, there are many ways to incorporate music into your life to enhance your well-being. As researchers continue to delve into the relationship between music and the brain, it's clear that music has the power to elevate our thinking. So the next time you need inspiration, consider "brainstorming with Pink" and see where the music takes you.
Jana Rosewarne, PhD
As a creative 'thnk-er' and research analyst, Jana is passionate about exploring the influence of music on creative thinking. This intersection infuses a unique note into her professional journey as a market researcher in understanding how brands can grow closer to their customers. Jana's expertise is grounded in her education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studied the science of consumer behavior and the impact of relationships on our well-being.
Through her writing, Jana aims to highlight how music can serve as a catalyst for truly original thinking and foster meaningful human connection.
1 Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
2 Tortella-Feliu, M., Morillas-Romero, A., Ballester-Arnal, R., & Baños, R. M. (2015). The impact of music on cognitive flexibility. Journal of Creative Behavior, 49(2), 97-109.
3 Gruhn, W., & Rauscher, F. H. (2014). Neurobiological evidence for musical training as a potential neuroplasticity agent in the human brain. Journal of Creative Behavior, 48(2), 165-180.
4 Nieminen, S., Istók, E., Brattico, E., & Tervaniemi, M. (2018). Musicians’ and non-musicians’ neural responses to complex auditory rhythms: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Psychology of Music, 46(6), 738-753.
5 Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L., & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447), 611.
6 Rogers, S., D'Eath, R., & Gardner, B. (2019). Musical training enhances the perception of emotions in speech prosody. Emotion, 19(3), 478-486.
7 Egermann, H., Kopiez, R., & Altenmüller, E. (2019). The influence of music on mental and physical stimulation: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 331.
8 Hatfield, M., & Luce, S. C. (2012). Using music to support the affective needs of people with intellectual disabilities: A guide for training and practice. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56(10), 1019-1031.