Published January 29, 2018

Research News

GSE research aims to further understanding of link between music and cognition

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published January 29, 2018

“There are glimpses — soft evidence — that music in the early educational environment may lead to more appreciation of music as adults. And it may trigger processes related to other learning. ”
Elisabeth Etopio, clinical assistant professor
Graduate School of Education

A UB interdisciplinary research team is exploring infants’ ability to recognize and prefer certain types of music to further understand the relationship between musical exposure and cognitive processes.

This preliminary research is underway in UB’s Neurocognition Science Laboratory, the same UB lab attracting national attention for its work in the educational possibilities of virtual reality.

“This study actually confirms the application of the work we’re doing with virtual reality,” says Elisabeth Etopio, clinical assistant professor and assistant dean of teacher education in UB’s Graduate School of Education (GSE), who is leading the infant and music study with Richard L. Lamb, GSE associate professor and director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory, and Mandy Seccia, a PhD student in GSE’s Curriculum, Instruction and the Science of Learning Program.

“We’re trying to observe a baby’s behavioral cues in terms of their facial expressions, fine and gross motor movements, and vocalizations, says Etopio. “We interpret each of those behaviors in certain ways as it relates to the infant’s music development. For example, we interpret movement after a song as the child wanting more music, as in ‘I really, really like this. Do it again.’

“And in this study, we have some preliminary neurological evidence that the behavioral interpretations we have made are closely aligned.”

The research, which takes place on the floor where Etopio sings and repeats rhythms to babies, has caught the interest of the interdisciplinary research team because of its potential to lead to other ways to stimulate the brain.

“Music and the arts make us better people and society a better place,” Etopio says. ‘There are glimpses — soft evidence — that music in the early educational environment may lead to more appreciation of music as adults.

“And it may trigger processes related to other learning.”

Researchers used a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRs), a type of neuro imaging device, to confirm the phenomenon that music, in varied tonalities and meters, can facilitate pattern-recognition processes in infants as young as 7 months.  

The fNIRs measures hemodynamic responses, allowing researchers the ability to observe how infants respond to music in a more natural, play environment, as opposed to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which involves a more invasive process.

This fNIRs device measures “cognitive dynamics,” or the degree of oxygenation and deoxygenation of the blood in the frontal cortex of the brain. The more oxygenated blood in this part of the brain, the greater the “cognitive load,” and the more engaged the infant is with the sounds in their environment.

“Providing infants with the ability to listen and engage with varied types of music may potentially facilitate the use of their cognitive processes that are active when recognizing different patterns in their environment,” Etopio says. The results of the fNIRs data confirms that the “behavioral” actions educators think indicate musical preference and attention are indeed an accurate reflection of what actually went on inside the infant’s brain, according to the researchers.

“When educators are teaching babies, they look for specific behaviors to make decisions about instruction,” says Lamb,

If educators can determine if the same kind of behaviors — such as enthusiasm and interest — correspond to cognitive actions leading to pattern discrimination, the researchers say, educators can find ways to better attract the child’s attention. This could maximize the teacher’s ability to guide the baby’s ability to learn methods to differentiate between other patterns in their environment, they say.

“We’re looking at ways to understand how best to get the baby to pay attention and to ultimately come to know how to increase their [the baby’s] learning outcomes,” says Lamb.

“What we’re trying to do is bridge the cognitive and the behavioral responses so that we can make decisions about teaching and learning with infants, and we can come back and say, ‘Look, these are really effective ways to teach a baby.’ ”

Etopio’s research relies on the songs, chants and musical techniques she has successfully used when teaching early childhood music classes to infants at the university with GSE colleague Maria Runfola. Measuring infants’ response with the fNIRs allows researchers to observe the infants in a more natural setting, lying with them on the floor and using approaches an early childhood educator would use to engage the infant.

“What’s great about using the fNIRs is that it’s portable,” says Seccia. So it’s unlike most neuroimaging equipment that is hard to move place-to-place. Typically, when participants are tested, they have to remain very still in order to get good data to analyze. With the fNIRs, movement doesn’t create as many problems when recording and analyzing the data.

“So there has been a breakthrough in the research. We can use this device on young infants and elderly people,” Seccia says.

Parents instinctually understand which songs and sounds appeal to their young children. But this research could allow educators to design song collections in varied tonalities and meters that engage the individual child. This could potentially lead to greater learning and cognitive development, and ultimately encourage critical thinking and pattern recognition, which are both crucial in academic disciplines, according to the researchers.

“The team found that a baby does in fact care about what is being sung to him,” says Seccia. Through these individual preferences of music, researchers can now observe infants’ behavior and reactions to music and develop musical experiences to enhance their learning, she says.

 “As we get to know each child and his preferences, we can tailor learning opportunities for them,” says Etopio. “One of the first things we tell parents when they bring their child to our community music classes is ‘You, first and foremost, are your child’s teachers. You are learning from us how to teach your young one.’

“One of the things that this research provides is the ability to measure the impact of musical opportunity on other learning outcomes,” says Lamb. “We need to do this.

“One of the things that happens is music or art are some of the first programs to get cut. So what we’re doing is attempting to show the place and role of music and art in the schools as a means to promote music learning in children and perhaps enhance cognitive tools such as critical thinking and pattern recognition.”

The research also marks an interdisciplinary approach that brings together researchers of different backgrounds to approach complex problems about teaching and learning, Lamb says.

“These are problems I couldn’t solve myself as the director of the lab,” says Lamb. “But we have people like Beth and Mandy, who have diverse and different backgrounds from mine.

“My background is educational technology, but Mandy comes from a cognitive psychology background. Beth comes from an early childhood development background and musical background, so she has a deeper understanding of how to teach music and how the music is impacting learning,” he says. “Mandy has a great understanding of how this music is impacting learning for the infant. Mandy has a great understanding of how the music is impacting cognition as the infant listens.

“I know how to put all these things together,” Lamb says. “Without the others, I would not have the depth of knowledge to be successful. So this is a great example of how the lab at UB is working to solve a very big problem using diverse skill sets.”