John Hale, of Dunedin, asks :-

I read somewhere that the singing of new melodies had enlarged the left brain of nightingales. If this is so, does it work for human singers? Is singing good for the left brain, but not the rest of it?

Ruth Empson, a neuroscientist at the University of Otago, responded.

Humans uniquely share with birds the capacity to sing and learn new songs. Some of us may have heard a nightingale, but in NZ we are more likely to hear young unpracticed korimako (bellbirds) singing simple tones before developing their more complex and beautiful songs. So what happens in the brain when we sing is fascinating for me as a neuroscientist whose research aims to understand how brain connections change during skilled movements, and who also personally knows the benefits of singing.

Singing is a set of skilled movements, though most people CAN sing. Recent work shows that in trained opera singers the parts of the brain dedicated to the movement and detection of sensations of the muscles controlling the voice box, and the detection of sound, are considerably expanded compared with untrained singers. Expanded, however does not mean that the brain of the opera singer is physically bigger.

How can this be? As we practice and become more skilled at a movement the connections amongst the specific regions of our brains dedicated to the movement become more numerous, or expand. These connections, called synapses, are the site where communication between two or more brain cells, or neurons, takes place. A single neuron can connect at thousands of synapses to other neighbouring neurons to make the brain a complex network of connections. So, although the brain doesn’t get physically larger in the trained singer (or the nightingale) the “expansion� refers to an increased number of connections as more synapses are created during the process of learning to sing well.

Singing and the brain is not just about skill though. The benefits of engaging the complex brain networks to carry out the movements of singing (even badly) are well described for the alleviation of stress and even the treatment of dementia and depression. Singing with a group is even better and raises the levels of feel-good hormones that in turn work to physically change network connections in the brain, even to the extent of improving memory and cognition.

So keep on singing, even if only in the shower.

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