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How Music and Language Shape Our Brains

A researcher from Northwestern University in the United States has found a way to measure how our brains make sense of sound, and has suggested that the ability of our brain to process sound is influenced by a variety of things, including learning new languages, playing music, hearing loss and hearing disorders, and even aging.

Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Lab in Northwestern’s School of Communication, shared her findings at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin, shedding light on how we make sense of sounds, one of the most complex tasks undertaken by the brain. By devising a new way to measure what is happening in the brain as it processes sounds, she’s been able to both solve the problem of how it carries out this process, and look at how our environment shapes it.

Volunteers listened to sounds, music or speech while sensors measured the amount of electricity produced by their brain as they translated the sound

In order to measure how the brain responds to sound, music or speech was played directly into the ears of the volunteers. Sensors then measured the amount of electricity produced by their brain as they translated the sound. Just like a mixing board, the essential ingredients in sound are based on pitch, timing and timbre, and these ingredients need fine tuning for optimum performance. Previous studies have shown that outside factors such as music, learning languages, aging and hearing loss can influence and affect the ability of our brain to process sound, and that people who are actively involved in playing music can actually hear better in a noisy environment, than those who don’t. Furthermore, poverty and the education level of the mother can also have an effect on a child’s ability to process sound.

Based on their findings from this research, Kraus and her team have conducted studies in schools, community centres and clinics, with some very interesting results. So far, they have concluded that the way in which a pre-literate child process the ingredients of sound can be a prediction of their future reading ability. Furthermore, the way in which the brain processes sound provides neurological markers for conditions such as dyslexia, autism and delays in learning. As Kraus says, this is hardly surprising as sound processing is really just a measure of brain health.

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