For anyone who’s mastered the guitar — or is just learning for that matter, you know that learning this skill can be challenging. Whether you’re already an all-star, or look up to your guitar-shredding heroes, it’s clear that guitar players are special — and the answers may lie within their brains.
Study Finds — Guitar Players Have Unique Brains
When you watch a video of Jimi Hendrix, for instance, you’re instantly left in awe. How is it that another human being can be so darn good at such a challenging instrument? Like him, many experienced guitarists are able to effortlessly play intricate pieces without giving it much thought.
The truth is — they’re not ‘thinking’ about what they’re playing, and that’s the whole point. Being able to utilize the unconscious portions of their mind, experienced players use their brain a little differently. This was seen within one key study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
In a nutshell, researchers scanned the brains of 12 guitarist pairs. What they found, was that these experienced individuals were able to synchronize neural networks as they played. This was seen even before the guitarists began to play — meaning, they could almost ‘tap-in’ to the other guitarist’s mind.
The areas that were activated, were those that dealt with music production, as well as social cognition. This may be why band chemistry is so important — and also why sibling duos often dominate. Although this finding is interesting, the researchers pinpointed one key truth — guitarists seem to be more intuitive than the average individual.
Basically, what they found, was that when a guitarist begins to shred, they experience a shift from conscious to unconscious thought. In comparison, when non-guitarists play, the conscious part of their brain stays very much on. As a guitarist’s brain makes the switch, they’re able to experience more creative and less-practical thought.
Okay, so guitarists really are unique, but can this musical skill make you a smarter individual? Over time, can you boost your IQ? What about cognitive functions, such as memory — are they strengthened?
Play the Guitar to Enhance Brain Function and Neural Health
For those who play the guitar, congrats — you may be part of a unique group of individuals who are enhancing both their body and mind. Before we dive into the details and related research, here are a few key points:
It’s been found that musicians experience an enhanced ability to integrate sensory input, including sight, hearing, and touch.
The age in which someone learns, may significantly influence brain development. Researchers believe that training before the age of seven can have the greatest impact — further influencing neural health as an adult.
When guitarists improvise, for instance, they rely less on their working memory — and instead, are able to extensively connect throughout the brain. This can drive brain plasticity, allowing the brain to change throughout one’s life, as it forms new connections.
What about one’s IQ? Can one’s score be influenced after they learn to play the guitar?
The short answer is yes — musicians do tend to have higher IQ scores than non-musicians, but why?
Within one study, this topic was investigated. What they found, was that professionally trained musicians, were about to use a more creative form of thought — divergent thinking. They also used both sides of their frontal cortex more than the average individual. This lends well to problem solving within everyday scenarios.
Overall, based on research to-date, the brains of musically trained individuals:
Showcase stronger neural connections
Have more gray matter
Can process information more effectively
Have a higher IQ
Showcase greater memory, attention, and motor coordination
While studying children, one University of Toronto study found that in comparison to those in drama lessons or no lessons at all, when participating in music lessons, greater increases regarding full-scale IQ scores were apparent. Since one’s IQ score is generally a predictor of academic achievement, child guitarists may significantly benefit from their well-loved hobby.
More recently, researchers have also focused on cognition — particularity memory. Experiencing enhanced working memory and language processing skills, musicians are believed to process new information more effectively — then potentially store that newly synthesized information long-term.
Although this is ideal within one’s daily life, being a musician may also help you in your later years. With rates of dementia at an all time high, it’s important that we take proactive measures. After all, prevention is the best possible form of treatment.
One study, based on twins, found that playing an instrument could potentially lower one’s risk of neurodegeneration. When comparing twins — those who were able to create music, experienced a one-third lower risk in comparison to their non-musician counterparts.
While studying 157 sets of twins, the researchers were able to better control one of the main problems with previous related research — key differences in genetic backgrounds. Since identical twins share 100 percent of their genetic material, and non-identical share 50 percent, a more accurate association was investigated.
Of the twins studied, only one had dementia — what were the risk factors in their life that potentially contributed? After accounting for education, physical activity and sex, it was found that twins who played an instrument in older adulthood, were 36 percent less likely to develop dementia and cognitive impairment.
Although the jury is still out on why this may be, scientists believe that when playing an instrument, in this case the guitar, individuals are able to enhance their cognitive reserve. This is essentially the brain’s ability to resist damage and protect oneself against declining memory and thinking.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Sure, we may not have all the answers, and researchers may not full understand why it is that a musician’s brain is in some ways superior, but one thing is for certain — if you play the guitar, training for a number of years, you too will experience positive changes within neural pathways.
There may be some unique changes going on in your brain, but as a guitarist, I’m sure you’re more familiar with the feelings and emotions that your guitar can evoke within you. After all, as the great Joan Jett once said, “My guitar is not a thing — it is an extension of myself, it is who I am.”