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Music and drama are good for the brain, even when you start late

“This rigor, this ability to concentrate, to memorize, to put in the effort without it becoming painful, are capacities that I acquired thanks to the music. I am convinced of it “, says Louise, violinist at the Versailles Conservatory. She might be right.

If the practice of music or drama is good for morale, our brain loves it too. So much so that practicing these arts could improve cognitive abilities no matter what age people are starting out.

At least that’s what a new study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and led by Mathilde Groussard, associate professor at the Inserm laboratory of neuropsychology and memory imagery in Caen, suggests.

A musician’s memory revealed

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For musicians, research had already revealed a small peculiarity well hidden in their brain. In 2010, it is thanks to medical imaging that Mathilde Groussard was able to explore what is happening in their cranial box. Surprise: for them, the anatomy of this organ is different from the rest of the population.

“In musicians, we have seen a change in the structure of the hippocampus. This part of the brain, particularly involved in memory mechanisms, is larger in their case ”, specifies the researcher. A finding which therefore assumes that people who practice music have a better memory compared to the rest of the population.

The more we play, the more cognitive abilities will increase.

We say to ourselves that it would take years of music theory before we can develop these better cognitive abilities. Not at all. This possibility would be accessible to the greatest number, and without having to practice his scales for fifteen years before seeing his brain change. The researcher emphasizes that “The first modifications in certain regions of the brain can be observed from the first years of musical practice”.

However, this process remains gradual and the affected regions will multiply as practice. The more we play, the more cognitive abilities will increase. Mathilde Groussard wanted to explore this incredible possibility. She wanted to know if it was specific to the practice of music, or it was seen with other art forms as well. A question that led her to produce this latest study.

The theater is not left out

The researcher then became interested in theater. In this discipline, learning texts is essential and it calls for another form of memorization: verbal learning.

In practice, “The theater has all the same points in common with the music by the need for rehearsals, a necessary regularity of work and performances given in public. It is both for these similarities and these differences that we have chosen to focus on it ”, explains Mathilde Groussard.

She therefore wished to compare the cognitive abilities already known to musicians, to those of theater actors and actresses and to those of people who do not practice any form of art. To do this, participants aged 18 to 80 were divided into three groups: those who play music, those who do theater and those who do not do any of these activities regularly. All were subjected to batteries of neuropsychological tests.

Result? “Musicians and people who practice theater have better cognitive skills than people with no artistic activity”, replied Mathilde Groussard.

“I started acting in retirement, every week, and I soon noticed an improvement in my memory capacity.”

Laurent, 58 years old

The first place is still awarded to people practicing music. They are better at tasks that require speed of execution, non-verbal reasoning, working memory and long-term visuospatial memory. Cognitive mechanisms of which we are not necessarily aware, but which nevertheless play on our memory and which are also constantly called upon in our daily lives.

As Mathilde Groussard reminds us, “thanks to [par exemple] to them that we are not going to say everything that goes through our heads, because they participate in the process of inhibition. They also allow us to be more flexible and to move from one action to another. They also play a role in planning tasks, for example when following the steps of a cooking recipe. ”

That said, people who do theater are not left out. They exhibit better memory skills and verbal fluency – two abilities developed by their art and which are essential to its good practice since they play on the quality of oral language.

“Our brain is plastic, all the experiences we have in life have an impact on it, recalls the researcher. We will be able to transfer into daily life, for other things, the abilities we have acquired with theater or music. ” An adaptive performance of which our brain is capable, regardless of its age.

The key is thoroughness. | Marius Masalar via Unsplash

Regularity prevails

“I started theater in retirement, every week, and I quickly noticed an improvement in my memory capacity”, tells the 58-year-old Laurent, a former bus driver at RATP. He is not mistaken. We might be tempted to believe that we would have to start young to see the contribution of these arts to our brain, but it seems not.

All of the study participants began their practice at different times in their lives. However, whether they started at 18, 23, 54 or 71, artists have always exhibited better cognitive abilities compared to the rest of the population.

“Even if someone is going to start theater or music late, they can still reap cognitive benefits for their brain.”

Mathilde Groussard, researcher

“What’s interesting is to see benefits at all ages. Even if someone is going to start theater or music late, they can still derive cognitive benefits for their brain ”, rejoices the researcher.

Rather, the key lies in thoroughness. And for good reason, the artists who participated in the study have one thing in common: the regularity of their practice. These amateurs have been playing for at least three years, for a minimum of four hours per week.

Science has long believed that humans are born with a limited number of neurons and that it is not possible to gain some, only lose some. Mathilde Groussard recalls that “For several years, we have known that this is false. In reality, there is a creation of neurons, and therefore new connections, throughout life. They are created as long as we do something, that we are active regularly. ”

This is what happens when we practice these arts diligently. There is therefore no age to start music or theater, nor to observe, from the first years, better cognitive abilities. “With the various results we have today, we can say to ourselves that, even if we start them late, these activities could help slow the cognitive deficits linked to advancing age.”

With the pandemic we are going through and the closing of conservatories, the constraint of masks, the impossibility of finding each other, one can wonder what place is left for these activities, which are nevertheless essential to the maintenance of our intellectual capacities. Whether it’s music or theater, “They are perhaps as important as education, physical activity, or work”, estimates Mathilde Groussard. All the more reason to hope for a return to normal.

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