The brain fitness industry

If you haven’t heard of Lumosity, you must have been living under a rock for the past several years. This company, founded 9 years ago, has now 50 million subscribers around the world, each paying $14.95 a month, for the promise of keeping their brain healthy and maybe even increasing their intelligence. Most commercial programs are based on exercises to increase working or short-term memory. But does that skill transcend to other brain skills?

The scientific evidence to date suggests that the games do little beyond make people better at the specific tasks involved in game-play. And this, their specificity, I think is the root cause of their shortcoming. What is needed is activity that is holistic, activating many brain areas. But, for that, we don’t need expensive gimmicks. Reading a book activates everything in the brain, from the visual cortex to the auditory centers, to memory (hippocampus and parahippocampus areas) emotions (the amygdala), the reward system, even the motor and pre-motor areas. And, so does its close cousin, music.

Storytelling and music, close cousins

Since ancient times, probably since we became human, people hungered for stories. Homer roamed Greece in the 12th century BC telling the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. At about the same time, the “best seller” in what is today’s Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel was the epic of Gilgamesh, told and retold countless times by roving storytellers. What is interesting about these people is that they mostly accompanied their stories with music.

Man playing the flute in the mountains | by Merelize | via Stockvault

They sang, played a musical instrument, even danced. African dances are stories about a battle, or a hunt, or a wedding, or a birth. The Sesotho verb for singing (ho bina), as in many other languages, also means to dance; there is no distinction since it is assumed that singing involved bodily movement.

David, before he became a king, entertained King Saul by singing and playing the lute (the Bible is silent on his dancing prowess). In many old traditions, storytelling is synonymous with song, chant, music, or epic poetry. Stories may be chanted or sung, along with musical accompaniment on a certain instrument. In fact, musical instruments, like the flute, were made as early as 45,000 years ago.

The presence of these flutes demonstrates that a developed musical tradition existed from the earliest period of modern human presence in Europe. Impressive? You haven’t heard the half of it. The flute is unlikely to be the first musical instrument. Various percussion instruments, such as drums, shakers, and rattles most likely preceded the flutes by thousands of years. We can see it in the archeological record and in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies.

Why this love of music? In a word: Sex!

This deeply rooted ability implies evolutionary origins. Darwin, in his Descent of Manwrote,

“I conclude that musical notes and rhythms were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus, musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively [in seeking mates.]”

Darwin believed that music preceded speech as a means of courtship, equating music with the peacock’s tail.

Want an example in modern society? Sixties’ musician Jimi Hendrix had sexual liaisons with hundreds (!) of groupies, maintained parallel long-term relationships with at least two women, and fathered, at least, three children in the U.S, Germany, and Sweden. Had he lived before the advent of birth control, he would have fathered hundreds or even thousands. Any lingering doubt about the selective advantage of music?

The cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Miller points out that interest in music peaks during adolescence. Far more bands are started by 19-year-olds than by 40-year-olds.

“Music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females,”

Miller argues. Is this why to this day I regret quitting the violin in order to make time for studying science? For me, it was all downhill from there.

The neurobiology of music

Brain regions activated by music.
Brain regions activated by music.

We could go on forever describing dozens of studies on the brain areas that are activated when playing or listening to music. As you see in the figure above, it basically affects the whole brain. Not only anatomically; music causes the release of dopamine, which in the limbic system (the reward system) generates the sensation of pleasure and in the prefrontal cortex creates expectations. It also increases the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” whose function is to facilitate social interactions. And it reduces the levels of cortisol, the anxiety hormone.

An NPR classical music station recently had a fund-raising drive. They asked the donors to state the reason for their donation. Almost to a person words such as “soothing”, “relaxing”, “island of sanity”, and “uplifting” were included. Not a scientific study, but still…such a preponderance of similar responses must tell us something.

Is it specific to classical music?


It seems intuitive that different people, based on their personalities, preferences, and personal histories of listening to particular music, will have different experiences when exposed to a particular piece of music. Their attention to various details will vary and they might like different things about it.

But Daniel Levitin and his collaborators showed in a European Journal of Neuroscience study that, from the perspective of the brain, there may be more similarities among music listeners than you think.

Seventeen participants who had little or no music training took part in this study which is small but typical for a fMRI study. Participants listened to four symphonies by composer William Boyce of the late Baroque period, which the researchers chose because they reflect Western music but were likely to be unfamiliar to subjects.

Among participants, the researchers found synchronization in several key brain areas and similar brain activity patterns in different people who listen to the same music. This suggests that the participants not only perceive the music the same way but, despite whatever personal differences they brought to the table, there’s a level on which they share a common experience.

What’s next?

You don’t have to be a neuropsychologist to recognize the potential of music in therapy. Andy Tubman, a music therapist, hit on a simple yet elegant idea: Marry the neurobiological effects of music with the scaling potential of technology, and voilá, you’ve got a psychotherapeutic tool on a limitless scale.

SingFit logo

He created an app, SingFit, that brings people together to make music. And you don’t even have to learn to play an instrument; all you have to do is sing. After all, science tells us that making noises, the archaic equivalent of singing, was the earliest form of music making. Anybody can sing, then why not get together and do it?

Indeed, his SingFit app is now in use in dozens of nursing homes and community center clubs, where people get together and sing 3-4 times a week. Tufts University is conducting a study on the effectiveness of this treatment. Come to think of it—what’s not to like? The worst side effect could be hoarseness due to over-enthusiastic singing. I am tempted to break out in song myself.

You’ve got to watch this interview. Don’t let Andy’s low key manner fool you. I think he has created a new paradigm in science-based psychotherapy:

This post was initially published on 11/02/14. It was updated 02/26/16.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. Our daughter takes piano lessons and hates to practice but besides the benefit of task mastery which will (hopefully) bring enjoyment later, the brain benefit of actually producing music is another reason we haven’t let her quit (yet). A scientist friend whose daughter also dislikes practice recently explained it to Rebecca this way: “When you eat that ice cream, scoop it with the spoon and bring the spoon to your mouth, a kind of light is turning on in your brain. It ‘sparks’. When you listen to music, several lights turn on in your brain. When you actually MAKE the music yourself, it’s like fireworks.” While this explanation didn’t make practicing the piano any more appealing to her, at least it made sense.


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