Tag Archives: Norman Doidge

The Musical Brain

I’m continually indebted to Edinburgh University’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), and in particular to Dr. Katie Overy, for flagging up many interesting events. In the relatively recent past I have attended a fascinating conference entitled Communicative Musicality and a lecture on Musical Entrainment.

Two more promising events have been brought to my attention in the last couple of days.

The first of these, entitled The Musical Brain, concerns the growing field which links music and neuroscience.*

The second, entitled The Child’s Curriculum: ‘What is the Value of Early Childhood Education and Care?’ concentrates on “ the value of early childhood education and care, with a particular focus on the implications for future practice and policy in Scotland.” This event is, which takes place in Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians, is free but registration is required – details here.

* you can find write-ups of music/neuroscience events I attended in The Wellcome Collection – here, here and here.

Interest in this area has led me to some interesting books which I can recommend:

This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen
Communicative Musicality edited by Stephen Malloch and Colwyn Trevarthen
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge


I was flattered to receive a message on this blog from a Biana Kovic – a cellist and film maker in New York – asking if I would like to review a film she had made entitled Virtuoso. The subject matter of this lovely, short film was Biana’s giving cello lessons to ebullient beginner, Matty Kahn , then aged 89, now approaching 93! This came about as part of the project, never2late.

Alongside scenes from lessons (8 hours-a-day, one day-a-week for one month) the film features interviews with music therapist Dr Concetta Tamaino and geriatrician Dr. Veronica LoFaso. The benefits conferred upon those learning an instrument are outlined in addition to those more specific to people in later life e.g. reducing risk of fracture, building muscle mass etc.

The striking opening words of the film (spoken, I imagine, by Concetta Tamaino) concern the ability of music to address – and therefore to stimulate – the brain on a variety of levels. Balance and co-ordination are cited as specifics. This would appear to endorse music’s position as a key ally in the “use it or lose it” approach to maintaining brain health. Advocate of the brain plasticity, Dr. Norman Doidge, is said to believe that learning languages is one of the best ways to encourage new pathways to form in the brain. I would contend that, for a beginner (of any age) music is a foreign language – or rather one that has become foreign to many, thanks to our species’ relatively recent tendency to outsource almost every aspect of life to experts.

One of the things which nudges this film from the category of documentary into that of art film is the lovely film score, written and performed by Biana Kovic. There is also a very striking still life moment where she and Matty, seated at a table, are framed by a cello and a music stand. The beauty of the cello and the functional elegance of the folding music stand are taken for granted by many of us who are sufficiently privileged to be able (mistakenly) to consider these items as office furniture. This shot alone exemplified one of the best descriptions of what makes something art which I ever heard (from Ian Spence – a Modern Studies teacher at Ross High School – some years ago): art is anything that makes us look at the familiar in new ways. This sounds very much like the sort of thing which keeps us young – because the young unconsciously encourage us to re-examine the familiar.


The Brain That Changes Itself

On Tue 15 Sept I went to an event in Glasgow Caledonia University organised by the Centre For Confidence and Well-being. A capacity crowd turned out to listen to Dr. Norman Doidge discuss ideas from his recent book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Formerly, I could never decide whether, before attending a talk about a book, it would be better to have read none, some or all of the book. I had read about 1/3 of the book before attending and so was familiar with a little of the territory. I must confess to being no nearer a solution to this dilemma as I felt that prior knowledge of some chapters made those parts of the talk easier to follow (and film footage of some of the characters certainly reinforced my memory of what I had read). However, nearing the end of the book, I also feel certain that having been present at the talk enabled me to get more out of the remaining chapters.

I would say that the central claim of the book is that the metaphor of hard wiring and the perception of the brain as a computer are not supported by evidence of the brain’s capacity for change – as cited in the book’s wealth of anecdotal evidence of near-miraculous recovery from strokes and neurological disorders.

In person and in his writing, Dr Doidge effortlessly guides the lay listener/reader through what might hitherto have been regarded as difficult territory. I got a great deal out of reading the book but would like to concentrate on three nuggets which I feel immediately applicable to professional and personal development.

Learning Difficulty. Dr Doidge suggested that we all tend to equate this term with the same few deficits – difficulty with reading, writing, auditory processing etc. Our society has come to prize these activities/tools. Had things turned out otherwise, many more of us might find ourselves categorised as having a learning difficulty. I for example, have no sense of direction whatever, and precious little visual acuity. I wouldn’t have survived half-an-hour in a hunter-gatherer society and it’s lucky for me that I appeared here and now.

Attention: Dr. Doidge makes it very clear that lasting cognitive change is impossible without the full attention of the learner. We all know this but it’s rewarding to hear the evidence put forward from such a physical, as opposed to pedagogical, point of view.

Habit: we are all familiar with the adage, use it or lose it. Unless I’ve missed something, there does not seem to be a similarly snappy phrase for the other side of this coin – repeat it and benefit from/live with it. As a teacher of physical techniques I feel vindicated in having been such a stickler for technical correctness. Poor habits, once instilled, are very difficult to shake off and the thousands of reminders-per-week have not been in vain. The idea of fuss being made of posture, hand positions etc. can summon up images of terrified pupils, sitting bolt-upright, their limbs and digits exhibiting the flexibility of wrought-iron. Au contraire. What I am describing is natural technique where the skeleton does its own work and the muscles do only what is required. This could be summed up as follows: the strength is in the technique – not the person. That reinforcement in this regard should come from a book about neuroplasticity is no more of a surprise to me than the fact that my approach to natural technique came, not from music college, but from here.