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Technology and Innovation

Tuning into how the brain learns

Researchers in Canada, Israel and India believe music can offer clues about the ability of the brain to transfer learning

Posted by Alanna Mitchell on November 29, 2017

A computer displays a picture of the brain of someone undergoing a magnetic resonance imaging scan at the neuroimaging unit of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Researchers at the center are collaborating with colleagues in Canada and India on brain research. (Photo: Bruno Charbit)

Scientists have made great advances in the past few decades in decoding how the brain works, using magnetic waves to peer deep inside the organ to see precisely which parts of it are firing when, and why.

But the answer to one question has remained stubbornly elusive: if you teach a person to be an expert in, say, playing the piano, can that level of expertise be easily transferred to, say, learning a language? In neuroscience, the ability to transfer learning is known as “generalization.”

“The Holy Grail, the real thing we don’t have, is how to gain generalization when we train people,” says Merav Ahissar, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences with the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. “Almost everyone improves dramatically when they are trained; they learn what you teach them. But generalization is rare.”

To see if she can pinpoint what aspects of training aid generalization, Ahissar is linking up with colleagues Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, and Nandini Singh of the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, India, to develop several experiments.

Funding for their project comes from the Joint Canada-Israel Health Research Program, administered by the International Development Research Centre, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Israel Science Foundation and the private Canadian philanthropic Azrieli Foundation. The $35-million, seven-year program, which will support biomedical research and initially focus on neuroscience, is aimed at fostering collaboration among researchers from Canada, Israel and low- and middle-income countries.

Ahissar, Zatorre and Singh opted to run experiments based on the ability of their subjects to learn music. That’s partly because Zatorre has been studying the brain’s response to music for nearly 30 years. It’s a rich domain, he says, pointing to the example of someone who sings a song recently heard. It seems simple, but requires an extremely complex roster of neural skills, including remembering the notes and using motor skills to convert those sounds into song.

As well, the brains of trained musicians are among the most extensively studied in the world, so scientists already have research they can build on.

Ahissar, Zatorre and Singh’s study will examine whether musicians trained in Western music automatically understand the more tonally complex music of India. Zatorre says it’s the most exploratory part of the research, but it also may be the most illuminating.

Western music has octaves with 12 intervals. Indian octaves have between 20 and 22, Zatorre says. A common critique of brain research on musicians is that they come from a single musical background.

Studying musicians from both Western and Indian backgrounds could provide valuable clues to the question of which parts of training just help the brain learn a musical system and which can be transferred to other areas of learning. “I freely admit that this aspect of cross-cultural learning is in a way the most interesting,” says Zatorre. “We don’t know what will happen.”

Singh is most excited about this part of the study. Indian raga music, one of the oldest musical traditions, is primarily aural, she explains, without much fixed written notation, and that makes it tough to study. As well, Indian culture has long rejected the idea of scientifically studying how music is learned; music has been considered “god-gifted,” she says. This research project provides the chance of watching the brain as it learns complicated Indian music, perhaps beginning to build a grammar of how that learning takes place, she says.

The team is still designing the studies, but Zatorre is determined to develop novel ways of training the experimental subjects. In a typical experiment, the subject hears a tone over and over for hours, a bore. In place of only rote memory, Zatorre is trying to build some pleasurable rewards into the experiment for those who learn well. That’s one of the primary ways video games work, he notes — they reward players by giving them points or extra tools to achieve their goals, encouraging them to keep playing.

Eventually, any findings could be used to help hard-of-hearing elderly learn to hear better. As well, the study may help dyslexics, some of whom have trouble learning to read because they have trouble distinguishing one sound from another.

“We’re going to take the best protocol and apply it to special populations,” says Ahissar. “But we still have lots of questions.”

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