February 22

Brain Food

3  comments

We’ve recently alit after a 3 week road trip followed hard on the heels by an intense and rewarding (and quite humbling) long weekend of intellectual renewal and regeneration at Renaissance Weekend. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much intellectual and creative firepower amassed in one place. After the mind-numbing travel, it was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a gale and a feast for the brain and the spirit.

Interestingly, even before this cerebral feast, I had an experience while on the road that reminded me–in a very mundane way–how engaging in one sort of learning can impact thinking in a totally different area.

As long time readers of Mike’s blog will know, I am privileged to sing with the Santa Barbara Choral Society, a group of about 100 voices whose mission is to study and present the choral music of great composers for the enjoyment of the community. Although I dutifully took piano lessons as a child, I am not a formally trained musician and so learning these often difficult pieces demands hours of study and practice outside Wednesday night choir practice. Toward that end, I began recording our rehearsals on a tiny digital voice recorder, so that I could re-do the rehearsal repeatedly.

At home, alone, I can sing along, almost as if I’m at the rehearsal again. On the road, that method won’t fly–almost without exception, the person in the next hotel room or seat behind you on the plane doesn’t want to hear you belting out the lines of the Durufle Requiem. But I can upload the voice tracks to the laptop and with earbuds, I can virtually rehearse, reading the music, silently mouthing the words, and singing along in my head. (I’m sure onlookers tsk-tsk sagely and assume I need to up my dose of anti-hallucinogenic medication.)

When we were on the plane (on one of many legs of this recent trip) I took advantage of the relative obscurity offered by a window seat and engaged in virtual rehearsals several times. On one occasion, however, just after completing a rehearsal, I put away the computer and got out a crossword puzzle I’d brought along to pass the time. What I noticed, doing the one immediately after the other, was a striking increase in my facility for working the puzzle. I almost couldn’t write the answers down fast enough. It was as if some sort of gate had opened that permitted instantaneous access to the information storage files in my brain. Amazing.

We wrote about this phenomenon (popularized as the Mozart Effectsome years back) in a chapter in The Protein Power LifePlan, now nearly seven years ago. (The book came out in 2000, but the manuscript was completed and turned into the publisher by the summer of 1999.)

Although scientific research certainly supports the cross-over effect between music and learning, concentration, and memory, I hadn’t witnessed a such a powerful demonstration of the phenomenon first hand. While the effect is probably stronger for actually practicing a musical form (learning to play an instrument and to read music) there is apparantly some effect even from listening to great music, which is how the effect was demonstrated in some of the studies of college students taking tests.

If you love to tackle puzzles or have a puzzling problem you need to solve, try it yourself and see what I mean. If you play an instrument (and that includes your own voice) practice learning a new or rusty piece, then immediately attempt a problem solving task–a crossword, a Sudoku puzzle, a brain teaser, or a problem at work or at home that’s stumped you. If you don’t play or sing, just listen to some really great music. Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn, Bach, or anything by Mozart are pretty universally easy to listen to, but it doesn’t have to be classical masters; any beautifully, artfully constructed piece of music would work. You may be surprised by the ease with which you can do now it.

Music, apparantly, doesn’t just have charms to soothe the savage breast, it also feeds the brain. And it’s carb free!


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  1. i am listening to concerto grosso no.5 d major by handl i believe and reading your book the doctor’s complete guide to vitamins and minerals, however i cannot find any thing definitive on paresthesia due a dentist overdosing me on antibiotics. i now have never damage that may no go away. the doctors in this area hate vitamins. i know hate is a strong word, but the people in east tennessee are sickest i ever seen. i read you book but could find anything relating to paresthesia. what can i do other than move to sweden? thank you nmary

  2. Unfortunately, we’re not permitted to make specific medical therapy recommendations to readers via the internet.

    Pages 404 and 405 of The Doctor’s Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals discuss information on supplements that may be helpul in numbness and tingling.

  3. Don’t know if you will see this since the post is so old, but thought I’d chime in here – my favorite working music (I’m a software developer) is late Medieval/early Renaissance choral music. It’s interesting and beautiful, but not too visceral or otherwise distracting, and since the lyrics are mostly in Latin they don’t grab my attention – though I mostly understand them having sung lots of masses, they’re still not as distracting as English lyrics.

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