Brain Plasticity In Early Childhood Psychology Essay

Childhood is said to be a period of bliss, innocence, wonder, curiosity, enthusiasm, awe, freedom and is a relatively happier part of one’s life. It is a period of immense opportunity. The pace of growth, both mental and physical is highly accelerated during this phase of life. Within a span of about two to three years, children go from babbling to using formal language for communication. And as they age, their ability to think abstractly, form concepts and use logic develops such that they are relatively comfortable using these skills by age 11.

Brain Plasticity in Early Childhood

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Many studies have studied the brain plasticity in early childhood. Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the neuronal circuitry in adapt to external stimuli. These external stimuli- sensory experiences or stimulations- cause the organization and reorganization the brain circuitry. There are four major conditions under which rapid plasticity is witnessed. Developmental Plasticity existing in the brain of an infant is that rapid brain reorganization that occurs due to exposure to new stimuli. Activity- dependent plasticity is the second condition which is caused by changes in the body (poor eyesight, hearing, etc). A third condition called plasticity of learning and memory is when the individual’s behaviour is altered according to a new sensory information. Lastly plasticity is seen after a traumatic brain injury and is referred to as injury- induced plasticity. But underlying all of these is the identical brain mechanism which involves strengthening of existing neuronal connections and establishing new connections between nerve cells.

Plasticity is a major topic of interest in neuroscience studies. When experience- driven plasticity was studied, it was found that there were changes occurring not only at the overt level (behavioral) but it originated right at the molecular and cellular level. Moreover it was found that the nature of the stimulus to which one is exposed was the determinant of neural changes. Music serves as a perfect stimulus as it is complex enough to effect both a behavioural and cellular level change (Munte, Altenmuller & Jancke, 2002).


According to Baron (2001) Intelligence is the individual’s ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning and to overcome obstacles by careful thought. Feldman (2004) defines intelligence as ‘the capacity to understand the world, think rationally, and use resources effectively when faced with challenges. Both these definitions indicate that intelligence is measure higher order processing capacity of the individual.

There are several theories of intelligence which spring from the basic debate as to whether intelligence is a single characteristic (unitary) or whether it involves multiple components (multifaceted). British psychologist Charles Spearman (1927) believed that performance on any cognitive task depended on a primary general factor (g factor) and one or more specific factors relating to particular tasks. But there were several others who subscribed to the belief that intelligence is fragmented and is composed of several abilities. Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences according to which all humans are endowed with eight different intelligences in varying degrees (Feldman, 2004). Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence took a more cognitive approach to intelligence (Baron, 2001). He proposed that human intelligence has three basic types which are Componential/Analytical (ability to analyse), Creative/Experiential (ability to generate new innovative ideas) and Contextual/Practical (the ability to solve problems of everyday life). In 1963 Raymond Cattell identified two clusters of intelligence- Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence. Fluid intelligence refers to our innate, inherited capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations. Fluid reasoning includes inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Crystallized intelligence on the other hand refers to the knowledge and skills accumulated over the course of a lifetime.

Nature of Music

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”

-Jimi Hendrix

We all know there is something in the nature of music that transcends our objective, perceivable, rational, grounded and tangible world. It goes beyond this realm of the “real” and as many would agree, reaches an abstract indescribable, liberating and unifying “spiritual” domain. This brings us to the question- Does the process of creation of music influence our development in significant ways?

Music and Intelligence. In recent years the interest in studying the effects of extensive music education on nonmusical perceptual skills and cognitive abilities has grown.

As stated by Schellenberg (2004) exploration of the possible associations between music and intelligence arises from two independent areas of research. The first one focuses on short-term effects of passive listening to music. In Hetland’s study (as cited in Schellenberg, 2004) and the study conducted by Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky (as cited in Schellenberg, 2004) the Mozart effect was found. According to this simply listening (passively) to music composed by Mozart leads to temporary increases in one’s spatial abilities. But this has been hard to replicate and can be attributed to differences in mood and arousal based on testing conditions (Husain, Thompson, & Schellenberg, 2002; Nantais & Schellenberg, 1999; Thompson, Schellenberg, & Husain, 2001).

The second area examines whether music lessons have parallel or indirect benefits with respect to the nonmusical areas of cognition (Schellenberg, 2004). This present study focuses on this second area of interest. The phenomenon of training (or skill acquisition) in one domain influencing skills and cognitive abilities in other domains is commonly referred to as transfer. A closer resemblance between the training domain and transfer domain leads to a phenomenon called near transfer (Forgeard, Winner, Norton, & Schlaug, 2008). A common example would be the improvement in fine motor skills and rhythm and melodic discrimination skill as an outcome of musical training.

Far transfer occurs when there is very little resemblance between domain of training and the domain of transfer. This is difficult to demonstrate owing to numerous confounding variables such as prior IQ, socioeconomic status, and education (Schellenberg, 2004). Far transfer could be in the form of instrumental music training influencing areas of verbal, visuo-spatial, and mathematical abilities, as well as general IQ. Many of studies conducted in this area have been correlational, although there have been a few experimental studies (Forgeard, Winner, Norton, & Schlaug, 2008.)

Plato, the great Greek philosopher once said “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

A thorough music training has the following features: extended periods of focused attention, regular (daily) practice, reading of musical notation, memorization of extended musical passages, learning and comprehending many types of musical structures (e.g., scales, intervals, chords, chord progressions), and progressive mastery of technical (i.e., fine-motor) skills and the rules governing the infusion of emotions in performance (Schellenberg, 2004). Childhood is the stage at which the brain shows a high level of plasticity and is sensitive to external environmental influences. A combination of the above mentioned experiences can positively influence cognition and give “wings to the mind”.

Previous research findings provide support to the hypothesis that music lessons boost intellectual development. Intellectual development is measured with the help of intelligence tests. We proceed with the presumption that this transference can be attributed to a general intelligence factor or G-Factor (Spearman, 1927) from which stems the ability to carry out a wide variety of human thought and activity. “Intelligence” here refers to that measured by IQ tests. Music training is believed to increase both musical aptitude (potential or capacity for musical achievement) and other non-musical abilities. Positive correlations have been found with verbal skills, selective attention, spatial ability, mathematics skills and general IQ (Hille, Gust, Bitx & Kammer, 2011; Forgeard, Winner, Norton & Schlaug, 2008; Schellenberg, 2004). This study examined the influence on general IQ in particular.

Music and Creativity. On the other hand creativity is an often encouraged quality within the context of music. Creativity is as much a mode of thought as it is a product of it. Similarly music like creativity is a mode of thought (Vaughan & Myers, 1971). Here thinking involves, notes, pitch, rhythm, beat, key and precise finger movement.

Creativity is a rather ambiguous concept. Although there can be no thorough empirical definition of creativity, according to Margaret A. Boden, creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artifacts that are new, surprising and valuable. Idea is again a broad term which encompasses anything from poetry, musical compositions, dance or event choreography and innovative cooking styles to scientific concepts and inventions (Boden, 2004). Can creativity be enhanced? Not only have creative people been found to be high in intellectual ability but also have been found to be talented in some way- for example, mathematics or music. “Creativity is ‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value” (NACCCE 1999:30 NACCCE 1999:30; as cited in Uren, 2012). But IQ as measured by the intelligence tests has found to show a very slight relation to creativity. This is due to the fact that intelligence tests focus on convergent thinking skills as opposed to the divergent thinking which is a dominant feature of creativity.

Creativity and Intelligence. In actuality creativity and intelligence seem to be positively correlated. Past studies of Getzels and Jackson; Yamamoto; Ahrens; Jacobson; Lucht; Feldhussen, Treffinger and Elias, (as cited in Palaniappan), have reported a positive relationship between creativity and academic ability. Put another way, they found that creativity and intelligence shared a symbiotic relationship; when IQ was lower, creativity made up for the lack of it and thus helped to boost academic performance. This again boils down to Spearman’s g-factor. Can creativity be looked at as a dimension of intelligence, originating from the same rich pool of g-factor?

According to Boden, creativity and intelligence are not independent abilities, rather creativity is simply an aspect of intelligence. Creativity in a sense then is omnipresent. Everyday activities like thinking, perception, interpretation, evaluation, memory involves differing degrees of the resource called creativity (Boden, 2004). Creativity is a natural human trait, probably one that was retained to give the homo sapiens an upper hand in the crucial race of survival of the fittest. Our ‘humanness’ is the product of our creativity. It is what sets us apart from animals. What is clear then is that each and every one of us, by virtue of being homo sapiens possesses this valuable trait but in differing degrees.

Music and Creativity. There are three different ways of coming up with creative ideas (Boden, 2004). One way is to combine pre-existing ideas in new innovative ways. This is very applicable in music. Every new tune requires the creative combination of different notes by an individual who is well versed in the domain of music. This individual has the ability to mix, match and ultimately come out with an entirely new composition with the same notes. Another form of creativity is further exploration of a pre-existing conceptual space. Music is one field where the number of combinations and permutations are so infinitely large that no amount of exploration will reveal its boundaries. The third type of creativity is through transformation of an existing modality of thinking. Take a look at the transformation in music over the ages. The breathtaking varieties of genres of music that exist are itself clear evidence for the malleable nature of music. There are genres and instruments that are unique to different geographic locations and cultures. Be it western or Carnatic, the basic notes have been shuffled, combined, recombined and transformed into so many styles that there is one or more styles that appeals to every individual or group.

Thus training in music can be regarded as an intellectually stimulating, and a vigorously creative experience. With years of training, this constant stimulation accompanied by a liberal flow of creative juices cannot but leave its imprint on the individual’s cognition. When Einstein came out with most of his phenomenal theories in physics, he also played traditional music on his violin alongside. Going back to the phenomenon of transfer, can the creative process involved in one activity transfer to other unrelated domains. This study aims to investigate the complex and intimate nature of the relationship between IQ and creativity.

The main variables this study planned to examine were musical training, IQ and creativity and the influence of musical training on the latter two variables. The research problem that this study wished to throw light on was whether primary and middle school children who train in a musical instrument score higher on IQ and Creativity tests as compared to those children with no prior training in a musical instrument. Going by the findings of past literature, it was hypothesised that children with music training for a minimum of three years in early childhood score higher than their nonmusical counterparts in both tests of intelligence and creativity.

Chapter 2
Review of Literature

Musical training in an instrument and its effect on cognitive development has always interested psychologists and neurologists. Instrumental training involves multiple senses and motor coordination in responses to the sensation. It’s a complex process having a multitude of intricate details.

Every note played is preceded by a structured sequence of activities. It begins with reading of the musical notation (symbolic system), comprehending it and finally translating it into sequential motor activity. Prerequisites for the precise execution of this motor activity are development of fine motor movements with a high degree of accuracy, memorization of complex musical pieces and a certain amount of creative improvisation for a finer sound (Schlaug, Norton, Overy, &Winner, 2005.) All that effort certainly does pay off- a happy audience and a faster and better developing brain. Many past research studies have highlighted the effect music training can have on cognitive process. Presented here is an overview of past literature in the following related areas:

Brain plasticity in children

Effect of music training on verbal memory

Effect of music training on intelligence

Effect of music training on creativity

Study on brain plasticity in children

In a study by Schlaug, Norton, Overy and Winner (2005), both the short term and long term effects of music training on a child’s brain and cognitive development was examined. The two questions they explored were a) whether there was a preexisting brain or cognitive difference between musicians and non-musicians and b) whether instrumental music training between the ages of five and seven could enhance cognitive skills and brain growth. Since the longitudinal study is still in progress another cross-sectional study was conducted. The preliminary findings (after 14 months) of the show only slight differences mainly in the domains of fine motor and melodic discrimination. For the cross-sectional study, a group of nine to eleven year olds were chosen as a sample. The musically trained group had a minimum of four years of training. The tests administered were Object Assembly, Block Design, Vocabulary subtests from the WISC-III and Wechsler Preschool Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-III), Auditory Analysis Test, Gordon’s Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) and two motor tests for testing speed and dexterity. They also underwent structural and functional MRI. Significant differences between the two groups were not found in the object assembly and block design test. But the instrumentalists were found to have significantly more grey matter volume when compared to the untrained group. The sensorimotor cortex and occipital lobe were also seen to be more prominent among the musicians.

Studies on effect of music training on verbal memory

Chan, Ho and Cheung (1998) studied the effect of music training on verbal memory. The aim of this study was to show that those who had received music training before the age of 12 had a better verbal memory than those who did not. The study was conducted on 60 female college students of which 30 had at least six years of music training before the age of 12 and the other 30 did not have any prior training. The participants were required to recall as many words as possible in a list learning task. Visual memory was assessed using the Benton Visual-Retention Test. The results showed that those with music training were able to retain more words that those without music training. There was not much difference in performance between the two groups in the test of visual memory. A second word list and visual memory task produced the same results. This implies that music training in childhood may have long term positive effects on verbal memory (Chan, Ho & Cheung, 1998).

Another study by Ho, Cheung and Chan (2003) further investigated the findings of the previous study. This again sought to examine whether music training improved verbal memory. Both a cross sectional and a longitudinal study were conducted. It was based on neuroanatomical differences that showed that the brain of musicians had a larger left planum temporal lobe. The primary function of this region is to aid verbal memory. In the cross-sectional study, there were 90 age (6-15), grade and SES matched right handed male participants. Of these 45 were musically trained and the rest had no training. They were administered the Hong Kong List Learning Test (HKLLT) a 16 two character Chinese word list that required the participants to recall as many words orally in three learning trials and two delayed recall trials. The Brief Visuospatial Memory Test- Revised (BVMT-R) was used to test their visual memory. To rule out confounding effects of IQ the two groups matched on this factor as well. The results indicated that there children with music training exhibited better verbal memory but not visual memory. A positive correlation between duration of training and verbal memory was also found.

To establish a causal relationship a longitudinal study was conducted by the same researchers. Here the progress of a subgroup of children who participated in the previous study was recorded. A comparison was made between children who had continued in the school orchestra and those who had discontinued training. The tools used for the first experiment were used again. Changes in both verbal and visual memory were examined. 24 people formed the group that had continued training, (with a minimum of 2 years excluding the 1 year of research) and 9 people formed the group that had discontinued after about a year and a half. A third group of 17 beginners who had not taken part in the previous study were. The results showed that there was improvement in verbal memory among beginners (with a minimum of one year training) and those who had continued with training. On the other hand the group that discontinued showed no improvement. These results indicate the possible role of music training in improving verbal memory. As before no differences were observed for visual memory. These two studies suggest that the experience of musical training causes a re-organization and increased cognitive development in the left temporal region. Previous neuroanatomical studies have also revealed that musicians had a cerebellum which was 5% larger than that of a non-musicians’ due to the fact that increased finger exercises led to increased neural growth (Schlaug, Lee, Thangaraj, Edelman, and Warach, 1998; as cited in Chan, Ho & Cheung).

A study by Jakobson, Lewycky, Kilgour, & Stoesz, sought to confirm the variation in verbal and visual memory between highly trained musicians and those with no musical training. 15 highly trained pianists and 21 individuals with no formal training in a musical instrument were tested on their ability for learning and long term recall of both verbal and visual information. After filling in a demographic questionnaire, the participants (ages ranging from 18 to 25 years) were matched in terms their background. The California Verbal Learning Test- Second Edition (CLVT-II) comprising two lists (A and B) were then administered to the participants. Following this was the administration of the Rey Visual Design Learning Test (RVDLT). Both these tests are similar such that recall is tested after every learning trial. Once the RVDLT administration was over, participants were tested on delayed delay of 20 minutes) free and cued recall of for list A of CLVT-II. Following this was a recognition test of the items on the same list. A few other verbal tests were also conducted as fillers. Then the delayed recall (free) and recognition of RVDLT design patterns was assessed. The participants also completed the North American Adult Reading Test (NAART) which gave an estimate of the Full Scale IQ (FSIQ) of the participants. Results were consistent with past research (Schellenberg, 2004). Musicians were found to have higher overall full-scale IQ as compared to non-musicians. Music training was also associated with superior delayed free recall for both the verbal and visual stimuli. Taking the latter point into account the results of this study vary from its predecessors which found no difference in performance between the groups in tasks of visual memory. This superior performance could be attributed to either better encoding of information, better retrieval or to both these processes. Superior verbal memory functioning was attributed to better auditory temporal processing abilities.

Studies on music training and intelligence

In a study by Harry A. King (1954) the relationship between music reading and IQ was investigated. Music reading is the ability to comprehend musical notes with respect to pitch, rhythm and tone. Using the parallel-group study two age, semester, grade (fifth and sixth grade) and sex matched students who train in music were chosen. Based on the students’ scores on the Knuth Achievement Tests in Music the two groups were formed. Group A consisted of 64 children with little or no skill in music reading whereas group B consisted of 64 children who had above average music reading ability. The Otis Self-Administering Tests of Mental Ability were then administered and the group means scores revealed that group B (107.45) exceeded group A’s scores (100.89) by a mean difference of 6.56. This study thus showed that music reading involves acts of a mental nature. In other words there is an overlap between the skills included under intelligence and the ones required for the ability to read music well. This shows a strong positive relationship between music reading and intelligence. This causal relationship can be established with some certainty, as the possible confounding variables such as age, hearing and eyesight were controlled with appropriate tests.

In a research article by Schellenberg, (2004) 2 specific issues were addressed. First was the positive effect of music training (instrumental) on IQ. Second, whether non-musical activities like drama and sports had comparable effects on IQ. For this purpose 144 children (aged 6 years) were randomly assigned to four groups, two of which received music lessons (keyboard lessons and Kodaly voice). The other two control groups received either training in non-musical activities like artistic activity or no lessons. Lessons were taught over a period of 36 weeks with 2 experts in each field conducting equal number of classes for the respective groups. Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children- Third edition (WISC-III; Wechsler, 1991), Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA) and the parent rating scale of Behavioral Assessment System for Children (BASC) were administered before the onset of training. Post-training the same tests were re-administered. The results showed that music lessons produced small increases in IQ, thus supporting the hypothesis. Comparable non-musical activities did produce the same effects. The drama lessons had a favourable impact on social behaviour which was absent in the musical group.

The next topic dealt with is whether early childhood training in a musical instrument is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. In a research article by Forgeard, Winner, Norton, and Schlaug (2008) the effect of music training on spatial skills, verbal skills, nonverbal skills and mathematical abilities was studied. Its effect on related areas such as fine motor and auditory skills was also studied. The study considered 59 boys (mean age of 9.96) from various public schools and community music schools. Forty one children formed the group playing instruments (keyboard, string and both). They had a minimum of 4.63 years of training. 18 children with no prior musical training were assigned to the control group. The children were required to participate in 3-4 testing sessions (which lasted about 6 hours) conducted over a period of 3-4 weeks. The tests administered were Gordon’s Intermediate Measure of Music Audiation (IMMA), Melodic and Rhythmic Discrimination Task, Motor Learning Task, Block Design subtest of (WISC-III), Object Assembly (subtest of WISC-III), RPM, Vocabulary( subtest of WISC-III), Auditory Analysis Test and Keymath. The results showed that those who had received instrumental training for three or more years outperformed the control group in areas closely related to music- fine motor skills and auditory discrimination. The instrumental group also outperformed the control group in verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. There was no difference in performance in tests of phonemic awareness and spatial skills. This phenomenon was attributed to specific and general transfer effects. A third explanation could be family dynamics and motivational skills. This study again confirms the hypothesis that those children who train in musical instruments outperform those who don’t on a number of cognitive abilities.

Next the topic addressed is the association between music education, intelligence and spelling ability. In a research article by Hille, Gust, Bitz, and Kammer (2011), the issue of general as well as specific language association of musical training was addressed. 272 elementary school boys (aged 8 to 9 years) were recruited from 26 schools. Nonverbal intelligence was tested using Cattells Culture Fair Intelligence Test- Scale 1 (CFT-1; Cattell, WeiI?, & Osterland, 1997). Reading and spelling was tested with the Salzburger Lese- und Rechtschreibtest (SLRT; Landerl, Wimmer, & Moser, 1997). Parents also filled in a questionnaire about musical experience of the child, the amount of encouragement provided and details of family members who play an instrument. The results showed that boys who played musical instruments had higher nonverbal IQ and performed better in formal spelling tests. In keeping with the results of the previous study, improved auditory analysis and discrimination is seen as the link between musical and language abilities. This study once again confirms the hypothesis that music training has a positive effect on IQ by retaining the results shown by the previous studies.

Following up on his previous study (Schellenberg, 2004), Schellenberg (2011) sought to further examined the association between music lessons and intelligence. The main goal of the study was to better understand if the executive function was correlated with IQ and served as a mediator between music training and intelligence. The direction of causation was also looked into i.e., whether music lessons enhance cognitive skills or whether high functioning children take up music lessons. For this purpose 106 nine to twelve year old children (54 boys and 52 girls were chosen from the local community comprising both middle and upper middle class families. 50 children were trained in a musical instrument for a minimum of two years to three years whereas 52 had no musical training. The construct of executive function covers a wide range of topics such as attention and memory, verbal fluency, ability to ignore conflicting information and focus on the task at hand and problem solving and planning. Tests such as Digit Span, tests of phonological fluency, Sun-Moon Stroop test, Tower of Hanoi and Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) were used respectively. Then Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI) which provides a full scale IQ (FSIQ) were administered to the participants. Results indicated positive relationship between music training and higher IQ. No relationship was found between music training and executive function tests (except the digit span test which is a subtest of the WISC). But higher IQ was found to be predictive of performance on all tests of executive function. Using previous neuroanatomical differences in the brains of musicians as evidence the author cites brain plasticity, genetics and environmental effects as the causes in difference in cognitive abilities.

Davis, Pierson and Finch (2011) examined the relationship between executive function and intelligence. 63 participants (35 males and 28 females) in the age group of 18 to 38 were chosen and administered the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS) and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III). The results indicated a strong association between the scores on the two tests showing a positive correlation between executive function and intelligence. This result in combination with the findings of the past studies of the relationship between music training and intelligence is suggestive of a relationship between music training and executive function.

Study on music training and creativity

In a study by Vaughan and Myers (1971) relationship between musical process and creative thinking was examined. They sought to understand if a musical training program can influence one’s performance on a non-verbal test of creativity. This study also looked at the relationship among mental ability, musical aptitude and the ability for creative thinking. A sample of 60 children in the fourth and fifth grades was chosen. In the control group (n=32) the conventional classical music training (singing, ear training and listening to concert music) was conducted. In the experimental group (n=28) a specially designed program consisting of musical processes which were equivalents of every factor in the creative process such as (fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration). Some of the activities required verbal and figural responses while some others were only through the medium of sound. Training in both the groups continued for a period of three months. The participants were subjected to five tests namely Torrance tests of Creative Thinking, Henmon-Nelson Tests of Mental Ability, Vaughan-Myers Test of Musical Creativity and Cunnington and Torrance’s “Sounds and Images”. Results showed improvement in both the groups in all factors but mainly with respect to elaboration. But the experimental group performed significantly better than the control group in terms of originali

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