As the population ages, people are working for more years before retirement. At the same time, the cognitive requirements of the work we do are increasing. Are our brains up for the challenge? Could music offer an easy, enjoyable way to combat cognitive decline associated with normal aging?
Alzheimer’s currently affects an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide. As the population ages, this number is estimated to double every 20 years. There is considerable interest in finding easy access ways to treat symptoms, and for maintaining the quality of life of affected individuals. Listening to music may be one way of addressing cognitive difficulties associated with Alzheimer’s, especially problems with memory.
Sometimes it feels like music sticks to our memories particularly well, or our memories stick to the music. Why is music such a powerful trigger for memory? Are the memories of our life events involving music somehow different from other memories of the past?
One of the most striking effects of music is witnessed in how it seems to preserve functions that are otherwise lost. There are numerous accounts of Alzheimer’s patients who have lost most of their memory, but can still recall songs with ease, or of aphasic patients who have lost their speech abilities but have no trouble singing. What does research say about the mechanisms that underlie these remarkable accounts?
Dr Caroline Palmer is Professor in the Department of Psychology, Canada Research Chair and Director of the Sequence Production Lab at McGill University, Montreal. Her work focuses on the behavioral and neural foundations (learning, memory, motor control, attention) that make it possible for people to produce auditory sequences, such as playing a musical instrument or speaking. Some of the questions explored by her research are: how is it possible for people to synchronize actions within milliseconds of each other and predict event timings and patterns with little information (as they do in music) and what we can learn about the way these behaviors are modeled in music that may inform our understanding of other important biological systems.
In our interview during this year's Sync Session at McGill, we learned why she decided to study human behavior through music and how technology like the Sync Project "could be a gamechanger" for researchers by dramatically augmenting the scope, scale and environmentally valid settings for research.
Studies have shown that already at birth, and even before it, children possess many skills needed to process music. Mere exposure to music influences the development of auditory processing and gradually makes us accustomed to the specific features of the music of the culture we live in. Read more about how memories of music in utero can be traced when children are born and how music affects other important aspects of early childhood development.