Monday, January 21, 2008

Music and Multitasking

In his "TierneyLab" blog for the New York Times, John Tierney discusses multitasking in terms of musical conductors:
[...]Maintaining a blog while doing other things has reminded me of how bad I am at juggling different jobs. I’ve tried to excuse this as a consequence of my gender. I’ve tried consoling myself with the theories of evolutionary psychologists who say that male hunters on the savanna needed to focus intently on one job — kill or be killed — while women evolved to be better multitaskers because the survival of the species depended on their being able to keep an eye on children while doing other work.

But now I fear I just have a lazy untrained brain. Some other men — musical conductors — multitask just fine, and it’s possible that this skill can be learned if you’re just diligent enough to rewire your brain, according to a study published in NeuroReport by researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
It's not just conductors, of course; all learned musicians do this, especially those who are required to sight-read as part of a performance. Granted, some of the things that performers and conductors do (such as reading ahead in a piece of music) become so automatic that it frees up more space for other things, but few would doubt that musicians are multitasking all the time.

This was what happened at during the linked study:
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the brains of musical conductors and non-musicians who tried to distinguish musical tones while also being shown visual images. The scans showed that non-musicians had to turn off more of their visual sense than the conductors did in order to focus on the task. One of the researchers, Dr. Hodges, director of the Music Research Institute at UNC-
Greensboro, says there are two possible interpretations of the results: "One is that the brains of musicians are wired this way, and that’s why they became musicians. The other is that they train their brains for rewiring. Because conductors have to be able to hear a bad note, then identify who did it, perhaps they rewire their brains to combine their visual and auditory senses. An experienced conductor has trained day after day, year after year, to let their brains pick up various signals from their senses."
Read the whole thing, which contains some very good comments from readers (take note of the guy who can translate back and forth between three languages simultaneously!). And yes, there are some studies out there proclaiming that multitasking makes you stupid, but most of us have to do it, so, from where I sit, it's good to know that the same skills that go into making me a better musician can also help me get several things done at once.

Holidazed: Of course, today is Martin Luther King Day, but two of my favorite humorists have also made note of the other, lesser holidays with which it is shared this year. James Lileks pointed out that today is National Hugging Day, while Dave Barry heralds (heh) Squirrel Appreciation Day. In the comments to Dave's post, I wondered if anyone tried to combine the two by hugging a squirrel, because that would just be...nuts.

No comments: