Can playing a musical instrument really make you smarter?

For weeks I observed the activity in the GC lounge at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus. On schooldays it is filled with students in search of a place to accomplish any number of important tasks – from last-minute studying to answering text messages to catching a few z’s between classes.

Alexandra Pecharic Gabriella Guerrero Graham Center piano

Pre-med student Gabriella Guerrero piques my interest in the relationship between music and mental acuity.

As our feature story on the baby grand piano stationed in the lounge makes clear, musically inclined students also see the space as ideal for practicing their playing. Pre-med student Gabriella Guerrero says sitting down at the keys relieves her stress and “keeps me sharp for my classes.” She cites research that playing a musical instrument can heighten creativity and problem-solving skills.

That made me wonder: What exactly do those studies say and, if they really do bear out what Guerrero suggests, shouldn’t we all be signing up for guitar lessons about now?

Searching the Internet, I came across this provocative statement by a psychologist at the University of Zurich: “Learning to play a musical instrument has definite benefits and can increase IQ by seven points, in both children and adults.”

Seven points! Imagine getting quantifiably smarter virtually overnight AND simultaneously mastering a means for entertaining family and friends. It all sounded too good to be true.

I contacted FIU psychology professor Anthony Dick for his opinion. Writes he in an email: “I would state this a little more carefully and say that playing music in childhood is associated with small but significant and lasting improvements in cognitive functioning, and this appears to occur despite controlling for things like parent income and education. I am not sure if the same holds for adults – those effects may be shorter-lived.

Hmmm. I was a bit disheartened, at least at first. Mind you, I have never taken an IQ test and have no plans to do so. Still, wouldn’t it be great to boost one’s brainpower in midlife? Imagine all the great cocktail conversations to which I could contribute astute observations.

So, I wondered, what kind of activities might truly kick start my gray matter. A Google search produced the following.

  • Learn about something you’ve always wanted to understand.
    FIU students are set. For everyone else, a few suggestions: attend lectures at the university – check the calendar to find out who’s coming; take a non-credit class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute – a great option for retirees.
  • Read often.
    Changing up what you read is part of the equation, so check out books by FIU’s Creative Writing faculty, in addition to keeping up with FIU’s news site and downloading the apps for your favorite magazines.
  • Meditate often.
    Calm, deep breaths through the nose bring in the fresh air our brains and bodies need, so breathe deeply.
  • Perform math functions regularly.
    Translation: Stop using the calculator function on your phone.
  • Never avoid breakfast, it’s essential for your brain to function efficiently.
    Both campuses offer breakfast (at the Fresh Food Company at MMC and Bay Café at BBC). For everyone else, a bowl of cereal at home or an Egg McMuffin on the road should do the trick.
Given my busy work schedule and an inglorious history of piano lessons in the late-1970s, any number of the above sound infinitely more realistic at this time than, say, taking up the cello.

What do YOU do to stay cerebrally fit? Outside of navigating a busy life that might include work, classes, family and social obligations, have you found a way to give your brain a workout that translates into improved function? Let us all know so we can keep up with you!

— Alexandra Pecharich

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