A few years ago there was a trend among pregnant women to play classical music to their unborn children — pictured in popular culture with headphones on their enlarged bellies — in hopes of giving birth to a baby genius. The so-called "Mozart Effect" was debunked, but a series of studies indicate that the active engagement of playing a musical instrument can expand children's minds in a variety of ways, with benefits that can last a lifetime. Conversely, research also shows that quiet time — spent meditating — also can have measurable benefits on children's development.
In a small study reported in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that taking music lessons helps children's brains process language. The research was undertaken at a Los Angeles nonprofit after-school music program after the head of the program noticed that high school senior participants were graduating and going to college at much higher rates than their peers. Nina Kraus, a Northwestern University neurologist, undertook a study there comparing the neural processing of kids who had studied music for two years, as opposed to one year. She found that the kids who had studied music longer had brains that processed sound better and more precisely.
Processing sound is essential for learning language, which paves the way for success in other areas of schooling. Children raised in poverty generally hear fewer words in their homes before age 5 than more affluent children, which puts them at a deficit in sound processing when they start school — a deficit from which many never recover. This study shows that music can be a bridge to language because they share three common denominators — pitch, timing and timbre — which the brain processes in the same way.
The study indicates that as one's musical sense improves, so do one's language skills.
Active engagement, however, is the key. "We don't see these kinds of biological changes in people who are just listening to music, who are not playing an instrument," Klaus said in an article in Time. "I like to give the analogy that you're not going to become physically fit just by watching sports."
In another study done by researchers at Concordia University, musical training before age 7 was shown to help brain development — specifically in the parts of the brain that help people plan and carry out movements.
That study looked at the brains of 36 adult musicians as they undertook a movement task. All of them had the same number of years of musical training and experience, but half of the group had started their training before age 7 and the other half later. Researchers also compared the brains to those of people who had little to no formal music training.
The group that started training before age 7 showed better motor skills, and their brain scans featured enhanced white matter in the corpus callosum (nerves that connect the right and left motor sections of the brain). Researchers also found that the younger the person was when he or she started music training, the greater the connectivity was.
As for the group that started training after age 7, their brain scans showed no difference from those of non-musicians observed in the study. And because the study tested everyone using non-musical motor tasks, the study suggests that early musical training has advantages well beyond being able to play an instrument.
Intelligence and enhanced motor skills are not the only benefits of musical instruction. University of Vermont researchers recently analyzed the brain scans of 232 healthy children, ages 6 to 18, and found that playing a musical instrument accelerated their cortical organization. The thickness of the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, has been linked to depression, aggression and attention problems. This study showed that the more a child played an instrument, the more they demonstrated improvement in their attention, anxiety management and emotion control, thus improving their overall emotional and behavioral skills.
Perhaps one day these types of studies will pave the way for music education to be a more integral part of school curricula.
A more New Age approach to helping children expand their minds — meditation — is finding its way into schools for a variety of reasons, including improved academic performance, better behavior and increased memory and attention skills.
California is a leader in the movement, though Chris McKenna, a program director at Mindful Schools, which trains educators in the practice, says schools in 48 states now have "mindful meditation" programs.
Why this rush to be still? A variety of studies have shown the benefits of mediation for adults, and now there is more evidence that is works for children in schools as well.
For example, after a school in New Haven, Connecticut, introduced yoga and mediation classes to incoming freshmen, those students' levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, dropped significantly, and stress is common among schoolchildren. According to the American Psych-ological Association's annual "Stress In America" report, one in five kids say they worry a lot about what is going on in their lives, and more than 30 percent suffered stress-related symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping. One of the most interesting things in that report: Only 8 percent of the parents were aware their children were experiencing stress at all. Meditation could help change those numbers.
A study done by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that behavior improved among second- and third-graders who practiced meditation over an eight-week period and the students performed better than non-meditators when tested on memory, attention and focus.
A study of more than 3,000 children in the San Francisco Unified School District found dramatic improvements in overall academic performance, including math scores, in students who practiced meditation. Behavior also greatly improved, with the district reporting decreases in student suspensions, expulsions and dropout rates.
NBC News aired a story centered on two of those schools — Visitacion Valley Middle School in one of San Francisco's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, and nearby Burton High School. Visitacion Valley Athletic Director Barry O'Driscoll at first wrote off the meditation program as "hippie stuff that didn't work in the '70s." He became a believer, however, after the school experienced a 79 percent decline in suspensions over a four-year period when meditation was practiced, as well as increased attendance and improved academic performance.
Burton High School Principal Bill Kappenhagen told the NBC crew he originally objected to the program. "There's no way I'm going to steal time from English instruction or math instruction to do that," he said. But his school, once known as "Fight School," has experienced a 75 percent decline in suspensions and students are performing better academically since the meditation program began. Kappenhagen now says he's glad the school has found a way to "help our students find ways to deal with violence and the trauma and stress of everyday life."