Monday, 13 August 2018

4 Positive effects of visual art on the brain.

Drawing and painting aren’t just merely fun pastime activities, but incredibly valuable for brain development.

Visual arts consist of a diverse spectrum of art forms that are visual in nature. These include drawing, painting, sculpture, crafts, ceramics, photography, film, architecture and design. Applied arts such as graphic design, interior design, industrial design and fashion design also fall within the category of visual arts.

From this list it is evident that we are surrounded by art. Granted, not every piece of visual art you come across in your daily life has the significance attributed to that of works you will find in a museum or gallery, but visual art, in all its forms, makes life more beautiful, interesting, entertaining and enjoyable. By creating art you’ll receive much more benefits of the brain, as well as improvement in other lifestyle qualities, than just looking at art. Though, to look at art can also be an enjoyable experience that can broaden your worldviews and influence your emotions positively.

Even though art is all around us, influences our societies and is also one of those things that is inexplicably awe-inspiring, it is not always seen as a fundamental aspect of education or in the workplace. For instance, art education won’t get placed first on the podium in an academic context when paired against science and mathematics, or even against other extracurricular activities such as sport – especially when budgets are involved. Some of these arguments are valid within reason, however there is much evidence to suggest that the benefits of art can help you on a personal level, as well as help you to connect to the world around you on a greater level. Even though these benefits cannot be expressed in the same way as standardised test results, the positive neurobiological, cognitive and psychological effects on the brain are well documented. The Renaissance man – inventor, painter, sculptor, engineer, anatomist and mathematician, among other things, Leonardo da Vinci, said the following: “Principles for the development of a complete mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.”

An art brush won’t necessarily save a patient’s life on the operating table, but the creative thinking skills that were fostered in art class can very well lead to medical professionals having a more unique approach to finding cures for diseases. The same is true for many other professions. The key is finding ways to incorporate art into your life that will help you to become a better version of yourself, and change the world around you for the better. Allow art to stand on its own merit for what it does for you as a person and what it does for humanity as a whole.

 In this article we discuss the following benefits of visual art on the brain:

 1. Neurobiological Benefits.2. Cognitive Benefits.3. Psychological Benefits.4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

1. Neurobiological Benefits.

Neurobiology refers to the biological study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology and nervous system. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body. It consists of the cerebrum (divided into two hemispheres), brainstem, cerebellum, complex organisation of grey and white matter and neurochemicals. The brain processes, coordinates and integrates information and controls most of the body’s functions.

·       Creating visual art increases brain plasticity.

Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity and neural plasticity, is the brain’s ability to undergo changes throughout your life. This function enables the brain to grow new or modify its connections (by means of synapses, the structures that enable neurons to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron), almost as to “re-wire” itself. Plasticity determines the number of connections and how these connections are affected and how long these connections will last. Brain plasticity also allows for change in the volume of grey matter. Without plasticity it isn’t possible for the brain to develop from infancy to adulthood. Neither would the brain be able to recover from an injury.

When you engage in an unfamiliar or complex activity, your brain creates new connections between the brain cells. A German research team published an article titled ‘How ArtChanges Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and CognitiveArt Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity’ in which they compared the creation of art and the evaluation of art. Their findings concluded that when you create visual art, it stimulates communication between different regions of the brain, which forces the brain to modify or create new connections. Through fMRI, the researchers could see greater spatial improvement in functional connectivity of posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and precuneus (preCUN) to the frontal and specific parts of the parietal cortices. Art evaluation did not yield improved results in this area.

2. Cognitive Benefits.

Cognition is the mental action or process of obtaining knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses. When you create art, your brain’s cognitive abilities is exercised in multiple ways, which leads to improved brain functioning.

·       Creating visual art improves memory.

The neurological benefits of creating art include the promotion of brain plasticity, which plays a big role in connectivity between the various parts of the brain, as mentioned. These connections also impact the way in which our brains take in new information, process it, retain it and the duration for how long it will last – in other words the cognitive abilities related to our memory.

The medial temporal lobes are central components in processing memory. In the same article ‘How ArtChanges Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and CognitiveArt Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity’, researchers expressed that the creative process of producing art leads to enhanced memory processing, as it requires stored information to be connected with new information. This is evidenced by the increased functional connectivity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and precuneus (preCUN) in the middle temporal gyrus (MTG) and superior temporal gyrus (STG).

·       Creating visual art improves geometric reasoning through visuospatial abilities.

Visuospatial function, also called visual spatial function, refers to the brain’s cognitive processes regarding visual perception of spatial relationships. This involves the ability to identify, integrate, and analyse space and its form, details, structure and spatial relations in more than one dimension. Such skills are required for movement, spatial navigation, and depth- and distance perception.

Art is very reliant on forms, shapes, spaces and lines. These elements are also present in geometry, albeit these serves a different function. Geometric reasoning uses critical thinking, logical argument and spatial reasoning to find relationships and solve problems. A study by Pablo Tinio, PhD, and Roni Reiter-Palmon,PhD, tested the relationship between visual art studies against drama studies to the geometric reasoning performance of children, starting in their grade 9 school year until the end of grade 10. The results showed that children that engaged in visual arts studies improved more in geometric reasoning than children engaged in drama studies. Visual art can thus be a means to improve mathematic scores in school, but also useful for other professions that heavily make use of geometry in their work.

·       Creating visual art improves your coordination.

When creating art, fine motor skills and superior hand-eye coordination are required for the use of various tools. Such as drawing with pencils, pens and crayons, or using a brush to paint, or sculpting a statue using clay etc. Art coordinates the small muscles of the fingers and hands with the eyes and promotes dexterity and precision of these skills.

·       Creating visual art correlates with higher academic performance.

A study published in 2007 by Ellen Winner andLois Hetland of the arts education program, Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, stated that there is no substantial evidence that engagement in visual arts, such as painting, drawing and sculpture, can directly improve academic performance. Their findings suggest that when a child struggles for instance with maths, enrolling in an art class isn’t an appropriate and effective way to solve those problems. Furthermore, their findings on the effects of art on other non-arts-related skills were also inconclusive.

Naturally they received some counteraction for their report, with some referring back to studies prior to theirs, like the report by the Arts Education Partnership, that have concluded positive academic benefits for literacy and mathematics. Some also raised concerns about the lack of replication of the outcome of their studies, stating that much research on the subject is still to be done.

Never the less, Winner and Hetland did not back away from their findings. They themselves are deeply passionate about art and said that art should garner merit on its own terms, not in relationship to other academic subjects. Just the same way science doesn’t need ‘validation’ from other disciplines (though it is influenced by and influential on others). There are many greater benefits to be obtained from arts that cannot be obtained otherwise. Such benefits also cannot be quantified through standardised test scores. These benefits can include aspects like connecting you to the larger world, as noted in the report from 2005 by Rand Corporation.

It is evident through an abundance of reports that art helps children to perform academically in a way to which the mystery has not yet been scientifically solved. TheNational Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) that took a sample of 25 000 American students with high levels of arts-learning experiences, revealed that these student earned higher grades and scored better on standardised tests compared to students with little or no involvement in the arts. Many similar assessments came to the same conclusion. TheCenter for Arts Education published in their 2009 report that there is a positive correlation between arts education and graduation rates. This means schools that offered the least amount of access to arts education had the highest dropout rates and schools that offered the most had the highest graduation rates. While there are many other variables at play here, these findings imply that integrating arts with other subjects assists with academic achievement.

·       Creating visual art improves your language and comprehension skills.

For young children that are still in their developmental stages, the act of creating art provides the opportunity to learn words for various colours, shapes, materials and actions. They will eventually start using these descriptive words to talk about their own art works, as well as being able to verbally express their feelings about artworks and other things related and non-related to art. These topics may include emotions, innovation and creativity, abstract concepts, and intelligent reasoning.

This is supported by an artstudy program called Learning Through Art that was done at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The study involved artists teaching children about art and helping them create their own works. Their findings showed the children that took part in this program scored higher (more so in the oral exam, than the written exam) on six different categories of critical thinking and literacy skills than the children that did not take part. It is suggested that they scored higher because they learned valuable critical thinking skills during their discussions about art.

3. Psychological Benefits.

The brain is responsible for your mental states. Art can influence the psychological aspects of your mind, such as your mood and emotions, in various ways, since it can be so diverse. While art certainly doesn’t have to be only about uplifting or tranquil subjects (like rainbows and waterfalls), the actual creative process of making art can be. Creating art is intellectually stimulating as it allows for self-expression, creativity and innovation. Producing art alleviates stress and yield many other positive mental outcomes.

·       Creating visual art reduces stress.

Dr. Girija Kaimal, assistant professor at the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, Drexel University, recently published the findings of a study she led for the effects of art on stress in an article ‘Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ ResponsesFollowing Art Making’. The study concluded that 45 minutes of creating art resulted in significant lowered cortisol levels in the body.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone which regulates a range of processes. These include metabolism, blood sugar levels and immune response, as well as reduction in inflammation, and assistance with formulating memories. Cortisol is also often called the “stress hormone” due to its connection to the stress response. Higher cortisol levels correlates with higher levels of stress.

The scientific study by Dr. Girija Kaimal’s team showed that 75% of the participants had lower cortisol levels, indicating lower stress levels, after they created art. Their heart rates and blood pressure was also lower. The calming and stress-relieving effect was corroborated through written documentation by the participants themselves.

Neither the participants’ experience with creating art prior to the study nor their natural artistic talent (or lack thereof) had an effect on the outcome of the results. For some this might be great news, as it means you don’t have to be a spectacular sculptor and painter like Michelangelo to experience the stress-relieving benefits of being creative.

·       Creating visual art builds your confidence and self-esteem.

While the confidence and self-esteem are related, it is not exactly the same. Read our blog articles ‘Howto develop a healthy sense of self-esteem’ and ‘5Tips to build your confidence in and out of the classroom’ for details on the differences and how you can improve it through other means.

Creating art is a wonderful way in which you can build confidence in your own abilities and also your self-esteem. When creating art you allow yourself and others to learn more about you, though self-expression. It is a great way to expose yourself and your work. Art allows you to start conversations and engage in discussions about your art and other artworks and artists. It is a way to learn how to critically judge your work, learn what others think of it and grow in the process. You will learn that not everyone will like your work and not everyone will like or dislike every piece the same. You will learn to value their opinions – sometimes you can learn valuable things from their experiences and receive great advice. You will also learn to listen to yourself and often times go against what others say. This is how many great breakthrough-works was accomplished – by artists being unique and taking risks. Art will help you find and affirm your own identity.

4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

Visual arts can improve other aspects of your life and allow you to live a happy, balanced and fulfilled life.

·       Creating visual art enhances your creativity.

Creating visual arts obviously require some amount of creativity, if that wasn’t already clear. But, creativity isn’t just a skill you were born with or not. Creativity can be learned and improved, just the same way exercise improves muscle strength. Art encourages you to find out things for yourself. These skills and abilities can often only be obtained by doing it yourself, through exploration. Every artist has a unique way of thinking, working, operating etc. which contributes to the uniqueness of a piece.

Art education is a platform that allows children the opportunity to learn, grow and develop beyond the skills taught in class. The mere act of mixing different colours of paint encourages young children to take risks, which will foster a sense of curiosity to find out how far they can push boundaries to create something new. Ultimately it teaches them to push themselves in ways beyond the scope of just mixing paint. This mind-set is a great asset to have as an adult.

Being creative, inventive and innovative in society means that you will be able to find solutions to problems in ways that are unique and more effective than just following traditions and directions. These qualities allow you the ability to improve and positively contribute to society in multiple ways. Think about the ingenious inventions and services which altered our world. Many hours of hard work and a creative problem solving went into it.

Art class may very well be a valuable contributing factor whether a company decides to appoint you as their Chief Executive Officer (CEO), instead of an equally hard-working, but non-creative, employee which also opted for the same position. This statement is supported by more than 60% of 1 500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries worldwide that took part in the IBM 2010Global CEO Study. They selected creativity as the most crucial factor required for success in the future.

Through this article we hope to inspire you start creating art, by also making you aware of the many benefits of art. It is a great outlet and wonderful way to express yourself. You will discover a world in which you can find wonder, and bring back some of that wonder with you and share it with the rest of humanity.

Let us know what type of visual art you enjoy creating the most.

If you enjoyed this article about the brain, you will enjoy these articles on brain and other extra-curricular activities:

Monday, 6 August 2018

4 Benefits of music on the brain

Playing a musical instrument is not only an excellent way to express yourself creatively, but also improves your brain functions, which leads to many positive effects on the quality of your life.

German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said: “Life without playing music is inconceivable to me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music.” 

There might be more to this quote by the prolific scientific genius, Nobel Prize winner and person of the 20th century according to Time magazine, than you would expect. Is it possible that music did not only serve as a delightful pastime activity for Einstein, but also contributed to his intellect? His musical life coincided with his scientific life, often being inseparable. Think about it! If a genius that is responsible for a significant number of the 20th century’s scientific breakthroughs, which forever altered our world, felt so strongly about how much music influenced his life, it may be worth investigating further…

Einstein grew up in a musical home, as his mother, Pauline Koch Einstein, was a talented pianist. She encouraged Einstein at the age of six to start playing the violin and also taught him piano. It is also worthy to mention at this point that Einstein developed very slowly during early childhood. He only started speaking at age four, he began his formal schooling education at age six and started reading only at age seven. In fact, many thought he was mentally handicapped as a child. Yet, he made tremendous progress and started learning Latin and Greek at age ten and could play Mozart’s violin sonatas at the age of thirteen.

So, could the exposure to music have contributed to the development of his cognitive abilities as a young child and even further as an adult? While we cannot go back in time to Einstein’s childhood to conduct such experiments, it is certainly very plausible.

According to scientists there is strong evidence to suggest that musical training can alter brain structure and brain function for the better. Arecent study done by neuroscientists, including Nadine Gaab, PhD, among other,from the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Boston Children’sHospital, concludes that there is a correlation (possibly a biological link) between early musical training and improved executive functioning. The stimulation of the brain when playing an instrument improves executive functions (which is responsible for regulating and adjusting behaviour and actions, processing and retaining information and solving problems) and cognitive functions (which include memory and abstract reasoning skills). Executive functioning is especially a forceful indicator of academic achievement – more so than IQ!

Music has such a powerful impact on our minds. In fact, playing a musical instrument will benefit your brain more than any other activity – including sports! Award-winning Neuromusical Educator Dr Anita Collins explains in her TED Ed lesson that you can monitor brain activity with fMRI and PET scanners to support this claim. When certain activities are performed, such as reading or solving a math problem, the corresponding parts of the brain lights up on the monitors. When they observed the brain activities of individuals listening to music, multiple areas lighted up – like fireworks! However, when scientists compared the brains of music listeners to musicians, they found that the little fireworks of the former paled in comparison to the explosion going on in a musician’s brain when playing an instrument. When you play a musical instrument it is equivalent to a full-body workout for the brain! It engages nearly every aspect of the brain. Though, the body is also very involved when playing an instrument.

Before we get into a debate about whether you should swap your current extracurricular activity for music, please know that an article published inLabour Economics, from a study conducted by Charlotte Cabanea and Michael Lechner from SEW and Adrian Hilleb from DIW Berlin, revealed that children who do both music and sports scored higher in academic achievement compared to children that only participated in one or the other. If you are interested in the equally fascinating benefits of sport on the brain, please read our article “4 Advantages of exercise and sport activities on the brain”.

In this article we discuss the following benefits of music on the brain: 

1. Neurobiological Benefits.2. Cognitive Benefits.3. Psychological Benefits.4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

1. Neurobiological Benefits.

Neurobiology refers to the biological study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology and nervous system. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body. It consists of the cerebrum (divided into two hemispheres), brainstem, cerebellum, complex organisation of grey and white matter and neurochemicals. The brain processes, coordinates and integrates information and controls most of the body’s functions.

Recent studies determined through brain scans revealed that there is a difference in brain structure between musicians compared to non-musicians. The research suggests that the shape and power of the brain is altered through regularly playing an instrument and that the anatomical changes are more prominent when musicians start learning their instrument(s) at a younger age.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases grey matter volume in various brain regions.

The results of a study conducted by Christian Gaser andGottfried Schlaug on three groups of people which included professional musicians, amateur musicians, and non-musicians showed a significant positive correlation between the musician-status and increase in volume of grey matter. In other words professional musicians exhibited the highest grey matter volume, amateur musicians exhibited intermediate volume and the lowest volume in non-musicians. The differences in distribution of grey matter volume occurred in auditory-, visual- and motor cortices.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases the size of the corpus callosum in your brain.

Not only is the volume of grey matter increased in the brains of musicians, but also the volume and activity of the corpus callosum – the “bridge” of enormous nerve fibre bundles responsible for the long-range connections between the two hemispheres of the brain. The fine motor skills required to play a musical instrument is controlled in both hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere is involved in linguistic and mathematical precision, while the right hemisphere is involved in novel and creative content. Increased volume and activity of the corpus callosum allow the messages get across faster and through more diverse routes.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases the blood flow in your brain.

Playing a musical instrument for even a short period of time can increase the blood flow to the left hemisphere of the brain. Increased blood flow to the brain also yields more energy.

 2. Cognitive Benefits.

Cognition is the mental action or process of obtaining knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses. When you play a musical instrument you can sharpen your cognitive abilities.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your concentration.

Musicians are required to concentrate on multiple things at once when playing an instrument. These include things such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, duration, and quality of note – everything to perform a musical piece with precision of technique and artistic emotion. Musicians are required to concentrate on even more aspects during a musical performance when playing with an ensemble 0r group, all focussing on their own unique melody and harmony lines which also include pitch, rhythm, tempo, duration, and quality of notes.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves executive functions

A study on musically trained children and adult musicians concluded that they experience increased performance for several aspects of executive functioning. These include planning, strategising, focussing on details, problem-solving, retaining information, controlling behaviour, and simultaneously analising cognitive and emotional aspects. An fMRI confirmed that activity in specific areas of the prefrontal cortex was enhanced during a test that made them switch between mental tasks.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves memory.

Executive functioning also impacts how the brain’s memory systems work. Playing a musical instrument and listening to music can enhance memory functions, allowing memories to be created, stored and retrieved more quickly and efficiently. Research also shows that, musicians use their highly connected brains to place multiple tags such as “audio”, “visual”, “contextual”, “conceptual”, “emotional” etc. on memories – similar to an internet search engine.

Two common types of memory is found, namely short term memory and long term memory.

Short term memory is the mind’s capacity to store a small amount of information that is readily accessible within a small time period. Short term memory is often considered as synonymous with working memory, though working memory refers more accurately to the framework of processes used to comprehend, interpret and manipulate the data stored in short term memory. Playing a musical instrument requires a high working memory load. Learning and remembering many musical compositions or songs, sometimes with lyrics, in a short time period, such as often required of musicians, is a very impressive achievement. When musicians regularly practise their instruments they expand their working memory capacity. An increased working memory capacity will yield improved thinking abilities.

When short term memory is retained after more than 2 minutes of the initial stimuli it becomes long term memory. Long term memory is the mind’s capacity to store data indefinitely. A research study led byacademy professor Petri Toiviainen, PhD, of the Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research (CIMR) at the University of Jyväskylä, and Elvira Brattico, PhD, of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki, found that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for the storing of long term memory, is active when listening to repeated musical motifs or musical phrases in a piece of music.

·       Playing a musical instrument increases IQ and improves academic performance.

Music lessons predetermines high academic performance and IQ scores in young children. The outcome of a research study which included a group of 6-year-olds who took vocal or keyboard lessons for 36 weeks showed increases in IQ and standardised educational test results, when compared to children that took part in other non-music related extracurricular activities.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your reading and comprehension skills.

Children that play musical instruments, and especially those who learn to read sheet music, display higher cognitive performance in reading and comprehension skills in comparison with their non-musically trained peers. The reason is that playing an instrument while reading sheet music means that you have to recognise note pitch, -rhythm and duration, including other instructions such as expression and articulation, on a page, comprehend that and translate it to a finger position and bodily action to produce a sound on your instrument.

·       Playing a musical instrument improves your mathematical ability.

Reading music requires counting notes and rhythms. These can boost your math abilities tremendously. Music theory also involves many mathematical aspects. Children who play instruments often score higher in mathematics as well as other subjects in in school compared to children who don’t play a musical instrument.


3. Psychological Benefits.

The brain is responsible for your psychological and mental states and music definitely influences the psychological aspects of the brain in a very positive and stimulating way.

·       Playing a musical instrument relieves stress.

Playing or listening to music can relieve stress. It is due to the calming and relaxing effect music has on people. It is an enjoyable experience that slows down the pulse and heart rate, lowers blood pressure and decreases levels of stress hormones.

·       Playing a musical instrument boosts mood and happiness.

Listening to music can put you in a naturally high mental state. This is due to the brain that releases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which leads to feeling increased happiness, joy, excitement and overall well-being.

·       Playing a musical instrument builds your confidence.

Playing an instrument is a wonderful tool to help you build your confidence and allow you to discover yourself though self-expression. As children develop their musical craft they will most likely start to perform in front of small audiences, starting off with music teachers and parents, later in front of other peer groups and eventually play concerts. This will help them to get comfortable with presenting themselves and their work in front of people in a non-academic context.

·       Playing a musical instrument reduces depression.

Depression is a state of low mood which may affect a person’s thoughts and behaviour and cause disinclination toward activity. A depressed mood is often a normal reaction toward negative and traumatic life experiences – such as the loss of someone close to that person, rejection, disease etc. Depression is considered an illness, or, more appropriately, a mental disorder, once it lasts for several weeks with consistent symptoms that cause disruption in a person’s ability to function normally. It is accompanied by loss of interest in enjoyable activities and having low self-worth. Depression can be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors.

Our hormones play a critical role in our moods, and if they are out of balance or disrupted, can cause depression among other things. Music has a direct effect on our hormones. When you experience music, through listening to it or playing an instrument, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released into the brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the increased feelings of joy, happiness and overall well-being. Norepinephrine, the hormone responsible for feelings of euphoria, is also released.

4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

Music can improve other aspects of your life and allow you to live life to the fullest. Plato said: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Playing a musical instrument improves socialisation skills

Playing a musical instrument helps you to engage in conversations in a unique manner, due to increased cognitive abilities and enhanced comprehension-, auditory- and language skills. Your brain will be able to think creatively and entertain abstract thoughts, which will make for interesting conversations.

·       Playing a musical instrument strengthens bonds with others.

Playing music in a band, ensemble or orchestra will teach you vital skills how to perform, work and cooperate with other people. In order to perform and or create good music together the players must learn how to read body language, pick up on small details and ques and listen to each other. Often an emotional connection is also involved when people express the same feelings in unison or contribute to their part in telling a story by means of music.

·       Playing a musical instrument enhances creativity.

The creative side of your brain is heavily activated when you play a musical piece. When you perform a piece or a song you inject some of your own personality into what the composer has written. The creativity starts to flow even more when you start improvising or writing your own unique material.

·       Playing a musical instrument refines your time management skills.

Timing and tempo, including rests is crucial to make a piece of music sound musical. Even more so, the process of learning how to play a musical instrument is very dependent on time and time management. Learning how to organise your time, schedules and routine is vital. The quality of practice time is more valuable than the quantity. You will see much quicker progress with the correct practice regime planned out. It will help you make your practice time more efficient.

·       Playing a musical instrument enhances your coordination.

Playing an instrument and reading sheet music requires superior hand-eye coordination. When you read music notation on a page, your brain recognises each note, comprehends it and converts it into specific motor patterns, such as a finger position and bodily motion that will produce the sound.

 We hope that you feel inspired to pick up an instrument and start playing music. Music can benefit your brain, which will ultimately improve your life in many ways. But most of all, playing music is a lot of fun and a very rewarding experience that is quite indescribable if you haven’t done it before. It is always great to start as soon as possible, since the effects on the brain will be the most substantial and lasting, but it is never too late to start, and you certainly shouldn’t give up! When the world famous cellist, Pablo Casals, in his 80’s, was asked why he continues to practice four to five hours a day, Casals responded with: “Because I think I am making progress”.

Let us know what instrument(s) you play or plan on picking up soon.

Monday, 30 July 2018

4 Advantages of exercise and sport activities on the brain.

Exercise is beneficial not only for your physical health, but also your mental health.

The topic of healthy living is constantly in the spotlight nowadays. Especially due to the fact that our way of living has drastically changed over the last couple of years compared to the past. We are moving at a faster pace in terms of basically everything. We all are more technologically inclined. Technology dictates the way we communicate, share information, travel, build structures, produce food etc. It obviously influences people’s occupations – which becomes increasingly more demanding and stressful despite the many improvements which science, technology and medical care offer.

Naturally the way in which our modern societies operate affect children’s education. Many of today’s parents didn’t have access to computers and the internet when they were children. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see children doing research for their assignments on tablets or mobile phones. Children also spend many hours doing homework and studying. This isn’t necessarily negative. After all – they are the ones that will continue the progress and development of our societies someday. However, our societies that develop at such incredible rates did not necessarily leave us moving faster. In fact we are physically less mobile – walking less due to transportation, spending less time doing hard labour due to machinery and spending less time on preparing meals due to fast food restaurants. Even our entertainment is the push of a button away… Not to mention some of the harmful aspects, such as pollution that can affect your health and mobility.

Due to this shift in the way we live our daily lives it is therefore more important than ever to have a sharp mind and a healthy body in order to keep up with the challenges we face every day. Some of the greatest ways to ensure physical health is through exercise and playing sports. I am sure you are aware of that fact. Like Jim Rohn said, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live”. Doing exercise builds stronger bones, muscles and joints. It controls your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. While some of these issues are not yet of concern for most normal children it is worthy to take note of it. When children form good habits at an early age they will reap the benefits when they are older.

There are many more benefits of being active. Regular physical exercise can benefit your brain, mind and lifestyle. In this article we discuss the following scientifically-proven benefits of physical exercise on the brain:

1. Neurobiological Benefits.

2. Cognitive Benefits.

3. Psychological Benefits.

4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

1. Neurobiological Benefits.

Neurobiology refers to the biological study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology and nervous system. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body. It consists of the cerebrum (divided into two hemispheres), brainstem, cerebellum, complex organisation of grey and white matter and neurochemicals. The brain processes, coordinates and integrates information and controls most of the body’s functions.

Exercise increases the size of your brain.

The brain can be compared to a computer. When you exercise you put your body under temporary positive stress – which forces your brain to work harder in order for you to perform these tasks. Exercise physically alters your brain through a series of chemical processes. A scientific research study concluded that adults that were put through an aerobic fitness program over a 6 month period experienced an increase in grey and white matter of the brain. This is like upgrading the hardware of your computer and thus transforming it into a greater and more powerful machine.

Exercise increases the birth rate of new brain cells.

Neurogenesis is the process of growing new brain cells. A recently identified chemical called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is responsible for neurogenesis. According to an American study it is believed that regular short and intense aerobic exercise will increase BDNF in the brain, while strength training does not influence BDNF levels.

Exercise increases energy and reduces fatigue.

Despite many that believe exercise causes fatigue, it is actually the opposite. Researchers from the University of Georgia revealed that 20 to 40 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic-type exercise (such as cycling) can revitalize your energy levels. The impact of the raised energy levels isn’t just experienced physically, but it will also leave you feeling less “drained” mentally.

2. Cognitive Benefits.

Cognition is the mental action or process of obtaining knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses. You apply “thinking” to all of the tasks you want to perform. Some actions take more effort and brain power and others happen more or less automatically. The fact is, you can sharpen your cognitive abilities (such as concentration, speed and accuracy) through exercise!

Exercise improves concentration.

Our technologically-driven world puts a lot of strain on our minds, as we have discussed in the introduction of this article. The hours that we spend daily behind computers doing work and research can be mentally exhausting. As a means of escape from this we utilise more technology – computer games and television. Sometimes there is so much technology around us. With social media notifications buzzing, text messages and emails coming in it is hard to focus on one particular thing. That said, technology isn’t a bad thing as such. It improves our lives in many ways. We only have to find ways to utilise it for good and not allow it to distract and hinder us to live healthy, active lives.

Exercise is a great way to clear your mind from all of the constant distractions that is going on. People who are physically fit display much more control over their concertation when participating in a challenging cognitive task. The good news is that exercise can improve focus not only in teenagers and adults, but also in children. A short period of intense activity can improve reading and mathematical skills in children as evidenced in the ‘Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function’ study.

The rise of ADHD in in children in recent decades is also a reflection of society’s difficulty to focus. Though the benefit of exercise for children is not new, recent findings done by Dr Betsy Hoza, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, revealed that children that received “in-school exercise” as a treatment for ADHD showed improvement in their cognitive functioning.

The next time your mind feels clouded and you cannot keep focussed try to download a fitness app or an exercise programme and follow through with it.

Exercise improves memory.

Short term memory is the mind’s capacity to store a small amount of information that is readily accessible within a small time period. Short term memory is often considered as synonymous with working memory, though working memory refers more accurately to the framework of processes used to comprehend, interpret and manipulate the data stored in short term memory. Examples of working memory include recalling a series of digits (0 – 9), names or pictures within less than 2 minutes after exposure. Numerous studies in the past have produced various outcomes pertaining the effects of exercise on working memory. However, it is generally accepted that less than 20 minutes of low intensity cardiovascular exercise (such as walking, running and cycling) yields immediate improvement in visuospatial short-term memory, more so than verbal-audio short-term memory. Cardiovascular exercise done over a longer time period (40 minutes of medium intensity exercise over 6 months minimum) shows more improvement toward verbal-audio short-term memory in the long term.

When short term memory is retained after more than 2 minutes of the initial stimuli it becomes long term memory. Long term memory is the mind’s capacity to store data indefinitely. Such memories can last for just a few hours, a few days or even years depending on their strength. Examples of long term memory include the recollection of the details of a story or images presented 30 minutes earlier. A study on long term cardiovascular exercise shows improvement in long term memory since it prevents deterioration of the hippocampus (which is responsible for consolidating short term memory into long term memory).

Exercise increases IQ and improves academic performance.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is a score derived from standardised tests designed to assess a person’s intelligence - relative to the average performance of other people of the same age. Research shows that a person’s IQ is influenced by fixed genetic factors (especially the brain’s structure) and modifiable environmental factors (such as birth, nutrition, physical and mental health and education) – a “nature” and “nurture” relationship, as explained in the ‘Journal of Neurology & Stroke’, available to read on ‘MedCrave’. While there isn’t much you can do to change your genetic makeup, there is substantial evidence to suggest that exercise can improve your IQ. A research study that obtained data from 1 million men in Sweden concluded that cardiovascular fitness is associated with global intelligence scores. Their logical, verbal, visuospatial, and technical scores reflected the same. Young men who improved their cardiovascular health between the ages of 15 and 18 also improved their IQ.

Academic achievement and physical fitness is closely connected. Aerobic exercise is the most prominent to provide better fitness and academic results. Regular exercise is responsible for spurring the growth of new brain cells. New brain cells make it possible to retain new information – which is crucial for learning. Read point number two in ‘Neurobiological Benefits’ of this article for more on this process.

It is worthy to note that the relationship between IQ and academic performance does not necessarily correlate. Some students with a high IQ doesn’t always experience success in the classroom. The opposite is also true. Some students with a lower IQ can achieve high academic success. What is definite is that both IQ and academic performance can be improved through exercise.

3. Psychological Benefits.

The brain not only coordinates the performance of your bodily functions and cognition, it is also responsible for your psychological and mental states. Life experiences, events and activities that happen throughout your day impact the way you think and react in situations and toward your surroundings. In other words your thoughts, emotions and personality – everything that makes you unique – is dependent on the brain. Sometimes things happen in your life that cause you unease, stress or distress which can be mentally taxing. Exercise can be utilised in order to make these negative mental states positive. It will turn you into a more resilient person that can handle these situations and feelings better.

Exercise reduces stress and anxiety.

Neurochemicals are released in the brain when you exercise. These include endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine – which is responsible for cognition, awareness and enhanced mood. In addition to the “feel good” neurochemicals that are released during exercise, it diminishes cortisol and adrenaline – the hormones associated with stress.

Exercise can also be used as a technique to manage stress and anxiety since it clears your mind from personal-, work-, financial- and other stressors. Regular exercise will help you to maintain a positive attitude – even if you are exposed to a stressful or traumatic experience.

Exercise boosts mood and happiness.

Due to the chemicals released in your brain, your mood will improve almost immediately after you work out. While “being in a good mood” will increase your chances of “having a good day”, mood is considered to be very fluctuating and can change throughout the day. Happiness is something that is more enduring. For example, someone can accidently bump into you when you walk. This might cause you to be startled and a little bit upset because you dropped something. However, this single act won’t affect your overall happiness and cause you depression. That is why it is not only advisable to exercise for the sake of maintaining a positive mood, but also securing long term happiness.

A study of Canada’s National Population Health Survey (NPHS) revealed that long term physical activity has a strong influence over a person’s happiness. The results were as follow:
  • Inactive people were twice as likely to become unhappy, compared to active people.
  • People who became inactive were more likely to become unhappy.
  • People who became active were less likely to become unhappy.

Exercise prevents and fights depression.

Depression is a state of low mood which may affect a person’s thoughts and behaviour and cause disinclination toward activity. A depressed mood is often a normal reaction toward negative and traumatic life experiences – such as the loss of someone close to that person, rejection, disease etc. Depression is considered an illness, or, more appropriately, a mental disorder, once it lasts for several weeks with consistent symptoms that cause disruption in a person’s ability to function normally. It is accompanied by loss of interest in enjoyable activities and having low self-worth. Depression can be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors.

Depression is a difficult subject to talk about. Despite it being estimated by the World Health Organization to affect 350 million people (and numbers continuing to rise) many still have trouble to grasp the true extent of its affects and have mixed opinions about treatment methods. More cases of depression is reported by females, however men suffering from depression is more likely to die as the result of suicide. What is alarming is that it not only affect adults, but also children and teenagers. Depression in children and teens are often more aggressive and self-destructive. Suicide among 15 to 19 year olds is the third leading cause of death in western societies.

Like we already mentioned, treatment is a very controversial subject. Since most people these days are looking for an easy fix because they live very stressful, unhealthy and busy lives. They don’t have the will, energy or time to take care of themselves otherwise and would rather get a prescription for medication from an industry that take advantage of their willing consumers. That being said, depression is a very serious issue and medical treatment from professionals should always be sought. The flipside is that not all treatments have to come in the form of a capsule. There is substantial evidence to suggest that exercise is equally effective to prevent and cure depression compared to other alternatives.

The saying “prevention is better than cure” is extremely accurate. Even if you make a remarkable recovery from an illness or disease the chance that it will leave some form of mental or physical scar is very likely. The largest study on the prevention of depression, led by King’s College London and the Black Dog Institute in Australia revealed that 20 minutes of daily exercise can cut the risk by one third. In fact, as little as one hour per week can significantly reduce the possibility of depression (across people of all ages), but doing no exercise increases the possibility by 44%.

What’s interesting is that people suffering from depression can find alleviation through exercise as evidenced by the University of California – Davis Health System. Exercise restores the levels of two common neurotransmitters (metabolic pathways of chemicals responsible for sending messages in the brain), known as glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). When these are depleted it leads to depression.

4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.

Exercise can improve other aspects of your life and allow you to live life to the fullest.

Exercise enhances productivity.

Everyone wants to get things done properly and correctly in the least possible amount of time. Why? If you can achieve more, you have more opportunity to grow and improve yourself. Being productive gives you a sense of accomplishment which this is crucial for success.

A study conducted by the University of Bristol measured the productivity of 200 individuals in 3 different organisations. They found that their levels of productivity were higher on days of doing exercise and lower on days of no exercise. Workout days showed the following positive results:
  • 21% enhancement in concentration.
  • 22% enhancement in completing work on time.
  • 25% enhancement in working continuity.
  • 41% enhancement in motivation.

Exercise enhances creativity.

When you think of the word “creativity”, exercise or sports is most likely not your immediate response. You would rather ascribe creativity to the arts: drawing, painting, music, dance and writing. Creativity is also required in finding connections between seemingly unrelated data, presenting things in new ways as well as solving problems uniquely. This makes creativity a vital requirement for success in various fields – be it technology and inventions, architecture, food, marketing and business. Yes, even professional sport athletes that can think creatively during a match will likely score better than just playing according to textbook guidelines.

Exercise, as evidenced in a study by Stanford University, especially low intensity exercise such as walking, can improve cognitive efforts involved in creativity significantly. They found improvement in convergent thinking (the ability to find solutions), as well as divergent thinking (the ability to conceive new and original ideas).

Exercise enhances sleeping cycles.

In order for you to function properly you have to get a healthy amount of sleep every night. Not only does sleep help your body to recuperate, but also more importantly your mind. Sleep regulates a number of functions in the brain. These include among other things communication between neurons, the improvement of memory and cognition and the removal brain toxins. Sleep is crucial for stabilising your moods and energy levels. Thus it plays a vital role in your productivity, creativity and learning abilities. A disturbance in sleeping patterns (such as excess or a lack thereof) can have many negative effects on your body, mood and performance.

Short periods of high intensity workouts will yield positive effects on your sleeping cycles – including improvement in total sleep time and with less disturbances.

You are unique, participate in something that suits you.

Something to take into consideration when starting out with exercising and/or learning a new sport is that each child is unique. The type of exercise or sport, the duration of each session and number of times you should exercise per week will depend on: your age, stage of bodily development, other health factors, interests and preferences. Some children are natural born athletes. Others have yet to develop the stamina, motor skills and hand eye coordination to perform certain acts. However, most children will likely not get it right the first time. You don’t have to worry about it. It will take some practise before you get the basics down before seeing any real results. Exercise should be seen as a continuous process.

Do not be afraid of exercise and sport.

Reasons why some children avoid exercise and sport are usually because they are afraid of failing and being judged. It may have happened in the past and that is why they choose to avoid participation on the sports field. This experience caused them great stress and lowered their self-esteem. If this ever happened to you, you should not let it prevent you from trying again and living a healthy lifestyle. There is an awful lot of fun activities that you will miss out on. You also won’t experience all the benefits that exercise can offer your brain.

Start with small steps.

Find a sport or type of physical activity that you like. Decide on activities that reflect your personality and abilities. Choose between an individual or team sport. For instance, if you don’t like group activities ask yourself why? Are you reserved about all group-related activities or only when it comes to sport? Is it simply because you like doing things on you own? You can decide on how much physical contact and competition you would like – or not like to have. However, open your mind to the possibility that despite having a negative experience in the past you are likely to meet similar minded people who are there for the same reason as you. 

Make sure that before you even start that you are mentally and physically comfortable doing it. Go over the rules of the sport, read up on it and see how others are doing it. When you are ready to participate make sure that you are warmed up properly beforehand so that you don’t hurt your muscles. Don’t push yourself too hard, especially if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. Speak openly to your parents about how you feel about a sport. Tell them whenever you want to stop and try something different. If your school doesn’t offer an activity that you are interested in, try to join a club or find a private instructor.

There is plenty of time to become a sports hero. Do not overdo it.

It is very important for you to be exposed to healthy competition because it teaches purposefulness, perseverance, stress management and sportsmanship. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure from parents and teachers on children to practice too early and too seriously for competitions. This can have a negative impact on you when you are driven to extremes. It can take away all the fun of that activity and possibly deter you. Excessive intensive exercise may interfere with your growth and have severe side effects. When you push yourself too hard it will interfere with your energy levels, sleeping patterns and mood. The exercise will no longer be beneficial for your brain and your academics. When you begin to use supplements and prohibited substances to help your progress it becomes very dangerous. If you are unsure of any form of exercise or substances, you should get a professional’s opinion. “Moderation” is an important concept to consider when working out your exercise routine.

We aim to get young people interested in physical exercise through this article and to encourage and inspire them to practice a sport. We hope that this article opened your eyes to the wonderful benefits of exercise on the brain and how it can improve your academics. Let us know what your favourite exercise and sport activities are. If you know someone that is passionate about exercise and sports please share this article with him or her.