Learning to play an instrument could boost your short-term memory

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Playing a rhythm-based game helped people remember faces and boosted activity in the brain’s right superior parietal lobe, which hints at how learning music can help short-term memory

Mind



3 October 2022

Playing music-related games may boost your short-term memory

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Playing a rhythm-based game for eight weeks helps non-musicians become better at remembering recently seen faces. This suggests that learning to play an instrument could improve short-term memory for non-musical tasks.

There have been several studies showing that musicians tend to have better short-term memory than non-musicians when it comes to music-related tasks, such as remembering musical sequences. It is less clear whether these benefits carry over to non-musical tasks or to non-musicians who are learning to play an instrument, and how these changes might actually be seen in the brain.

Theodore Zanto at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues, randomly assigned a group of 47 non-musicians, aged between 60 and 79, to play either a tablet-based musical rhythm training game, which emulates learning to hit a drum in time with a teacher, or a word search game for eight weeks.

At the start and end of the eight weeks, participants took a short-term memory test to measure their ability to remember a face they saw seconds before. Only the group who played the rhythm training game showed an improvement on their initial scores – of around 4 per cent.

Brainwave data recorded before and after the training showed an increase of activity in the right superior parietal lobe, a brain region associated with encoding visual information and attention. This suggests, says Zanto, that the rhythm training is improving the brain’s ability to focus attention on a task to get it ready for converting what you are doing into memory.

“This really seems to be an attentional control aspect of memory… it’s orienting your attention in such a way that it will enable you to encode it into memory and then subsequently retrieve it from memory,” says Zanto.

The ability to remember and recognise faces tends to decline as we age, so any possible mechanism to reverse that is important, says Josh Davis at the University of Greenwich, UK.

However, the effect demonstrated in this study needs to be shown in real-world facial recognition scenarios as well as in lab-based tests to be completely convincing, says Davis.

Zanto hopes that extending the training period beyond eight weeks may lead to a stronger effect on memory recall.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2201655119

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