Musicians and people who are bilingual have long been shown to have a better working memory, and a new study makes a start on identifying why this might be so.
The brain imaging study, involving 41 young adults (aged 19-35), who were either monolingual non-musicians, monolingual musicians, or bilingual non-musicians, found that musicians and bilinguals needed fewer brain resources when remembering sounds.
Participants were asked to identify whether the sound they heard was the same type as the previous one, and if the sound came from the same direction as the previous one. Sounds from musical instruments, the environment and humans were among those used in the study.
Musicians remembered the type of sound faster than individuals in the other groups, and bilinguals and musicians performed better than monolinguals on the location task. Although bilinguals remembered the sound at about the same level as monolingual non-musicians, their brains showed less activity when completing the task.
In both tasks and both levels of difficulty, musicians showed lower brain activity in the superior prefrontal frontal gyrus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex bilaterally, which is thought to reflect better use of neural resources. Bilinguals showed increased activity in language-related areas (left DLPFC and left supramarginal gyrus), which may reflect a need to suppress interference associated with competing semantic activations from multiple languages.
The findings demonstrate that musical training and bilingualism benefit executive functioning and working memory via different activities and networks.