Brain shaped by native language and music

Regions of some people’s brains develop differently that other people’s, based on their need to process certain characteristics of sensory stimuli, such as the sound qualities of our native language or, possibly later in life, of music, a doctoral study at the University of Helsinki, completed late last year, has concluded, providing some insight into how the brain processes sound.

Caitlin Dawson looked at how exposure to different auditory environments affected the interaction of different parts of the brainstem, one of the lowest structures in the brain. She picked sound stimuli that would allow her to differentiate the effects based on the sound’s:

  • duration
  • intensity
  • pitch

“We found that Finnish speakers showed an advantage in duration processing in the brainstem, compared to German speakers,” she concluded. “The reason for this may be that the Finnish language includes long and short sounds that determine the meaning of words, which trains Finnish speakers’ brains to be very sensitive to the timing of sounds.”

From early in life, then, our brains tend to zoom in on those qualities of sound that are important to us in understanding our native language, the language our parents speak to us before we know what the words mean.

Ms Dawson’s work focused on the electrophysiology of the brainstem in native speakers of Finnish, Mandarin Chinese, and German.

For Finnish speakers, for example, the electrical activity patterns in the brainstem showed some differentiation for sounds at different pitches, but not as much as the brainstems of children whose native language was Mandarin Chinese.

That’s understandable, since the Mandarin Chinese language uses tones and pitch to determine the meaning of words.

Ms Dawson also asked subjects about their musical expertise and factored those self-reported results into the study.

“The perceptual effects of musical expertise were not reflected in brainstem responses in either Finnish or Mandarin speakers. This might be because language is an earlier and more essential skill than music, and native speakers are experts at their own language,” she said.

The results suggest that musical expertise does not enhance all auditory features equally for all language speakers; native language phonological patterns may modulate the enhancing effects of musical expertise on processing of specific features, she concluded.

Editor’s note: So, does that mean people who speak a certain native language might develop brains that make them better musicians? This study doesn’t really address that question, but it notably makes musical expertise the end result: rather than saying that music helps with algebra or language arts skills, this study suggests music is a higher skill than language. If certain sound properties in our native language tune our younger brains into those characteristics of the sounds we hear, we might suggest that musical expertise continues to shape our brain in childhood.

If corroborated, some “research” claiming music makes kids smarter will be shown to be based on correlation only, not causation, since changes in the brain based on native language would come before those based on music. We already knew that, and I’ve reported it several times, but the misconceptions continue.

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