Enliven your brain with music


During the first lockdown I became a regular viewer of videos featuring professor of neuropsychology Erik Scherder. You probably know of him. He is a welcome guest on TV because he is able, with his infectious enthusiasm and clear language, to talk about the workings of the human brain. As I know little about the brain, I decided to learn more in this accessible way. At the same time I wondered, how can I best apply what I learn to my supervision of students?

In his videos, Erik Scherder explains, among other things, how the whole brain is involved in processing music when we listen to music and also when we feel emotion as we listen.

In and of themselves, statements like these make me feel happy because I personally enjoy music every day and am often moved by music. Actively making music, moreover, is believed to thicken the corpus callosum, the connection between the two halves of the brain. The left and right sides then work better together, making the brain more flexible. Unfortunately, I never learned to play a musical instrument. But, as I understand from Erik Scherder: it is never too late to learn and so I, too, still have time to stimulate my corpus callosum!

I love music. It sweetens my mood, for example when I am doing household chores. And my daily exercise routine is always accompanied by a tune. Today this might be house music, tomorrow I may feel like listening to an Indie band while I put my stomach muscles through their paces. The rhythm helps me to stick at the exercises: and now one more set, you can do it!

The effect of music on sporting performance has often been proved in studies. There isn't a gym in the Netherlands, I think, where quiet reigns while the athletes pummel themselves, metaphorically speaking, on various pieces of equipment. The music makes the athletes persevere with their training, even while feeling the lactic acid buildup in their muscles. In short, music and sport are a fabulous combination for your body. And not only this. The combination is also a good anti-stress agent. It is very difficult to worry about your exams or your work while you are playing sport (or exercising) with intense focus and at the same time are listening to music with a strong beat.

Just as music and exercise are really good for you, so stress is really bad for you. It is better for you to make endorphins than large quantities of cortisol. Eventually, stress undermines precisely those brain functions we need when we are intently busy. Yes, it's common knowledge. But knowing this is one thing, doing something about it is another matter entirely!

I often ask students how they spend their day and how they relax - when they come to me with symptoms caused by stress, for example. In this present situation more than ever, I am struck by the fact that many of them are, quite literally, sitting at home; moving only from their desk chair to the couch. Now, I'm not saying this is true only of students. Of course, we all know it is better to take exercise than to sit at home all day long, yet this doesn't mean we are taking any exercise. I sometimes tell students about Erik Scherder's videos. 'Exercise is exactly what you need to increase the activity in your prefrontal cortex!' Usually, the face in front of me breaks into a smile. 'Yes, I really should be doing that,' comes the answer.

I suggest that this year we take extra good care of ourselves. Let's start right now. Play that funky music!

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