Learn something new - your brain will thank you
May 10th, 2012
07:15 AM ET

Learn something new - your brain will thank you

Editor's note: Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist and author of the book "Guitar Zero." He is the director of the New York University Center for Language And Music.

The idea that learning a new skill - say juggling, cooking, or playing guitar - can be like an addiction is no joke.

I should know. As a college professor/scientist, who has written about the dynamics of narcotics and self-control, I have spent the last 3 1/2 years all but addicted to learning to play guitar. Despite lacking anything that might remotely resemble musical talent, I find no day is complete without at least a little bit of time on the guitar.

Even listening to music can be a little like a drug. A brain imaging study that came out last year proved what many scientists long suspected: Listening to music can lead the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the brain's universal signal for pleasure, an internal system that tells the brain (sometimes rightly, sometime wrongly) that it is doing the right thing.

Drugs elicit dopamine artificially by fooling the brain, while activities like sex and eating elicit dopamine naturally. Listening to music taps into the dopamine system in part because hearing something new is a signal that the brain is learning something, and we have evolved to enjoy acquiring new information.

Shortcuts like drugs, however are fleeting. Although narcotics can elicit dopamine fairly directly, over time it takes a bigger and bigger dose to get the same rush, and can lead people to destroy families, risk their health and even lose their lives.

Learning new things is a lot safer, and ultimately a lot more satisfying.

There is a myth that children (and for that matter adults) don’t really enjoy learning new things, but as every video game maker has realized, the truth is just the opposite. From "Space Invaders" to "Halo," "Grand Theft Auto" and "Zelda," practically every video game is in part about mastering new skills.

As video game designers realized long ago, if you can keep a player poised on the knife’s edge of conquering new challenges, neither too easy and too hard but square in what the cognitive psychologist Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, you can keep gamers engaged for hours. As long as we constantly feel challenged but never overwhelmed, we keep coming back for more and constantly sharpen new skills.

The trouble, though, with most video games lies in what they teach, which often stays with the game when the game is complete. A game that makes you good at shooting aliens may have little application in the real world.

Learning a more lasting new skill - be it playing guitar or learning to speak a foreign language - can equally harness the brain’s joy of learning new things, but leave you with something of permanent value, in a way that neither drugs nor video games ever could. It leaves you with a sense of fulfillment, which goes back to what pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow called "self-actualization."

As Aristotle realized, there is a difference between the pleasures of the moment (hedonia), and the satisfaction that comes from constantly developing and living one’s life to the fullest (eudaimonia). In recent years, scientists have finally begun to study eudaimonia. Research suggests that the greater sense of purpose and personal growth associated with eudaimonia correlates with lower cortisol levels, better immune function and more efficient sleep.

From the strict "Selfish Gene" perspective - in which all that we do is driven by the self-perpetuating interests of our individual genes – hobbies like playing music rarely make sense, especially for mere amateurs. But maybe the art of reinvention and acquiring new skills, even as adults, can give us a sense of a life well-lived.

According to a 2009 Gallup Poll, 85% of Americans who don't play a musical instrument wish that they could. Why not start today? As it happens, this week is National Wanna Play Music Week, a perfect time to pick up a new skill that will bring satisfaction throughout life.

What stops many people from learning something new is the thought that they are too old, not good enough or just plain busy. If my own experience is any guide, none of these matter much. Taking up an instrument (starting at age 38) has been one of the most challenging but rewarding things I've ever done.

So long as your goal is growth rather than stardom, learning something new may just turn out to be one of the most rewarding things you ever do. Your brain will thank you for it.

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Filed under: Brain • Psychology

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. William Harford

    With all due respect to Gary Marcus, I will have to disagree with his premises and some conclusions. Listening to music is not learning, in the sense described. Learning present is a secondary, supporting cognitive, psychological structure, among many others. I do not think it is even close to primary when music is in question. Everything, more or less, we experience, has a component of learning, but also many, many other things as well. I think Marcus made a long "logical connective jump" by connecting music, learning, and video games too. How about learning physics or mathematics, for most of the people? There is no dopamine rush, I am sure. There is stress, anxiety.

    There is a pleasurable learning and unpleasant learning. That should be in the focus. Music makes us feel good, but it's not because of learning, but because of the evolutionary built faculty that can appreciate aesthetics and beauty of music. Some learning process, of course, takes place, but that process takes place in almost anything we do. While listening music, learning, to me, is way less important part. Hence, connecting learning as a reason for dopamine release is wrong conclusion, in my opinion. I am sure that dopamine is released when we look at the beautiful painting or sculpture as well. But, it is because of aesthetics we can enjoy, and not because of (secondary) learning process that may, with other processes, provide the biochemical and psychological infrastructure for art enjoyment..

    May 10, 2012 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • LongJohn

      Seems you have too much time on your hands. Quit collecting that Welfare check and get a dang job there Willy!

      May 10, 2012 at 11:42 | Report abuse |
    • Rick


      May 10, 2012 at 16:27 | Report abuse |
    • SinCity

      I guess Rick and Long John have very fulfilling life when they made extraordinary decisions to dedicate their precious time for online monitoring, and commenting on, others' careers.

      May 10, 2012 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      I studied plenty of physics and math in college as an engineering major. I certainly felt a rush when I learned a new thing, a new concept. I can't imagine why else I stayed at it for the many years I did. Certainly learning then was addictive. I have similar experiences when I learn the intricacies of, for example, a new symphony to me.

      Perhaps the problem lies in the word addiction. It is so negative we jump away from it. But like food, warmth, and sex, the brain chemicals of learning are something we crave, even if we had it an hour or a day ago. If learning were not as … addictive … humans and other mammals would not have risen I think from habited animals to animals with learned behaviors.

      May 10, 2012 at 18:07 | Report abuse |
    • duexe

      Um.. you are incorrect. There is a MAJOR concept you are missing.. its called ACTIVE LISTENING. People who listen to music have better pitch recognition then those who do not (if you know what to listen for). For my beginning singers who have problems identifying pitch, I have them listen to classical music or music rich in harmonies to hear intervals to condition their aural skills.

      I train high functioning autistic and aspergers students through the listening of music (as well as application of technique). All my students do better in school and in social interactions.

      I agree that feeling good because your learning is a subjective thing. You have to like what your learning to feel good about it.

      May 12, 2012 at 13:16 | Report abuse |
    • William Hardford

      From the text the only thing that is reported and is TRUE is : "Listening to music can lead the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine." http://news.discovery.com/human/music-dopamine-happiness-brain-110110.html

      The following is FALSE conclusion, or premise (depending from which side of the article flow you are looking) "Listening to music taps into the dopamine system in part because hearing something new is a signal that the brain is learning something, and we have evolved to enjoy acquiring new information.". This is never proved in research anywhere. If it is, please provide the reference.

      Here is what Discovery News tells us about the research. "People love music for much the same reason they're drawn to sex, drugs, gambling and delicious food, according to new research....The findings suggest that, like sex and drugs, music may be mildly addictive," And this is opposite than what Marcus tries to show in the article. He even didn't recognize that music belongs to "shortcut" pleasures too, as drugs do. Similar with colors. They, as Cezanne would say, "goes into our mind immediately, like wine down our mouth"..

      The cognitive aspect of enjoying music has nothing to do with leap towards "pleasure of learning" that Marcus writes about. It's a too long leap, essentially wrong connection, with learning in other areas. Music is an emotional adventure, where emotional abstraction patterns are in interplay.


      May 12, 2012 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
    • William Hardford

      @ LongJohn .. No, I don't spend yours, nor welfare money. I spend my own money, and I enjoy it. Now, update your file on me, snitch.
      So, again, I can travel abroad, I can afford to chose to do my own research, in the fields I like, and I comment in those scientific fields in which I think I can make a positive difference. Your bitterness and malice can only tell that your level of dopamine might be very low. Get laid! (No women? No male friends? That's why you are online, doing what you do). Have a drink! Go to a concert! If you even read a bit what's written here, you will see that those things help. You can possibly begin to try to solve issues in your, most likely, less than satisfactory life you have right now.

      May 12, 2012 at 22:41 | Report abuse |
  2. Sarah

    Mocking educated people only shows off your ignorance, Long John.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. DrKTRuddy

    I began taking piano lessons last year at the age of 59. I started very slowly, at the level of a third grader. This morning I played Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude, beautifully if not perfectly. I say, go for it! Exercising your brain produces the same payoff as exercising your body; perhaps more.

    May 10, 2012 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Janet

      Good for you! My daughter (8) and I (48) are teaching ourselves to tap dance. You are never to old to learn something new.

      May 10, 2012 at 23:37 | Report abuse |
  4. Bill

    Too long. Didn't read.

    May 10, 2012 at 13:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RIck

      That is because you watch too much television and you have lost the capability to focus on anything for more than 2 to 3 seconds.

      May 10, 2012 at 16:25 | Report abuse |
  5. William Harford

    One interesting thing is that music has that power to tap right into our brain "pleasure" faculties immediately after we start listening to it. Almost no previous learning "how to enjoy music" is necessary. Even 3 years old children can enjoy music and some of them can compose music when they are five or older.

    To fully enjoy a result in physics or an elegant mathematical proof, one, usually, needs to spend years in school, to go through a lot of frustration and possibly stress, in order to learn certain things. Only after that there can be a minute or two, couple of times per year, satisfaction or pleasure moments, when a new mathematical proof is done or understood. Compare that with a continuous enjoyment, any time during the day or night perhaps, of a symphony or a piano composition.

    May 10, 2012 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Remya Chacko

      I agree Mr. Hardford !

      May 10, 2012 at 15:23 | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      I am sorry, Mr Harford, that physics and math were so unrewarding for you.

      Yes, I enjoy the pure sound of a symphony or a Bach suite, but also learning the complex relationships between the lines and between what happens at various times.

      May 10, 2012 at 18:10 | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    I dunno.....even learning physics or mathematics can be a pleasurable experience for anyone. Of course, the type of learning as well as the degree and rate will vary depending on ability. The pleasure side of learning is realized most abundantly when we are exploring a subject of interest to us. The more effectual interest is usually (but not always) fed from the "I just want to know for the sake of knowing" side of things rather than "I have a job to do" side of things.
    That subjects such as physics, chemistry and mathematics are more challenging to learn for the greater portion of people can not be argued against. But I believe learning those subjects deeply and thoroughly can be achieved by anyone with at least average intelligence with pleasure not only experience in the result but the process as well. What matters most is the reasons for learning.......the reasons for our interest.

    Currently or societies (even our most wealthy ones) are subject to scarcity. Furthermore, human beings have to spend most of their waking hours involved in the production of things. Our educational system is sensitive to this condition and is designed to meet the needs of production. We must learn certain things to become involved in production and, therefore, also take part in the consumption of said production. Since people's interests and modes of learning are as varied as personal experiences, the optimal learning conditions can not be provided for every individual. All of us, from time to time, must learn subjects in which we have no current interest and at rates of learning and regimens of learning that are not best suited to us. Throw in the stress of "not getting a good grade", "not graduating", "not getting into a good college", "not getting a good job" then our so called learning quickly becomes "a drag".

    Wishful thinking, I know....but. If everyone could just learn about what interests them and had their own personal instructor willing to assist them in a non-intimidating way, then learning would be pure bliss. In my opinion, the point of learning is simply to have a more complete and satisfying communion with God (or Nature) and to access the next door to the interests of our heart.

    Okay...enough of that! Back to work!

    May 10, 2012 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Willy Hardfordovich

      Well communicated ideas, Billy. I have a "problem" with the following Marcus' statement: "Listening to music taps into the dopamine system in part because hearing something new is a signal that the brain is learning something, and we have evolved to enjoy acquiring new information." That's, to me, unsubstantiated, unproven, and, possibly wrong.

      Also, "There is a myth that children (and for that matter adults) don’t really enjoy learning.". I think that learning is too general concept, whose generality is not explored sufficiently here, to make such statement. There are many kinds of learning and level of its enjoyment. It"s not myth, it's a true fact. People will enjoy learning if they are not forced to learn something, i.e. if they learn what they like. But, even in that case, who measured the level of dopamine?

      Most of teens like to learn about their rock stars more than linear algebra rules or differential equations. They like to listen music but not to learn notes, perhaps, or do drills on piano. If listening to music is called learning then, hey, let's make a diploma out of it.

      Physicist may be thrilled with the Fourier Transform application and analysis for each note played on the acoustic guitar. Biochemist will be thrilled with the sound cell receptors functionality when that tone is played. But, music lover will enjoy the music for its aesthetics values, for which is music work made at the first place. They "learn" on different levels and with different enjoyment intensities. Forcing a biochemist to enjoy the elegance of Fourier Transform is out of question. Or, music consumer/lover to learn about protein receptors energy levels and folding is ridiculous.

      To me, the whole thing in the article about the link between music, pattern recognition, pleasure, learning and dopamine is a huge stretch. I would only accept and focus on the part that scientists discovered that dopamine is released while music is listened to.

      May 10, 2012 at 17:35 | Report abuse |
  7. Paris

    I'm guessing most people commenting here cannot play any type of musical instrument beyond the proverbial "chopsticks?" It appears to me that many here are referring to "listening to music," as on an iPod or ???, as if it were the same as playing a musical instrument. If so, there is no comparison, dopamine or otherwise.

    May 10, 2012 at 18:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • William Hardford

      FYI, I played violin, keyboards, and later tenor saxophone. My music collection has, probably more than 3000 works.

      May 12, 2012 at 22:56 | Report abuse |
  8. Juanito

    Your brain will definately thank you, according to a neurologist my friend was seeing. Learning new things(even new routes to work) creates new experiences to layers within the brain, which helps against against atrophy(use it or lose it).

    He also mentioned a study

    May 10, 2012 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. happy

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    May 10, 2012 at 23:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. SinCity


    May 10, 2012 at 23:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Johnny AppleWeed

    Not all video games consist of simply "shooting aliens". Many of the skills I developed with computing were gained in childhood in the pursuit of playing computer games. They inspired me to learn to start coding for example. Today computer science is my profession.

    Personally I think anything the brain decides it really enjoys (which can be different per individual) is perfect for continuing to learn with. Learning new songs on guitar is great, but so is learning new games with complex sets of rules that can take years to truly master. If the brain has a child like attraction to a topic it will be more likely and willing to soak up new skills and knowledge that pertain to that topic.

    May 11, 2012 at 00:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Hugolamange

    In all honesty, I feel that these paragraphs of comments displayed by Will and others are quite refreshing. If only all comment sections were filled out in essay like form! Everyone has their own opinion and yes, i'm not afraid to say that sometimes all I read are the comments just to hear opinions like the ones developed in this thread. This article has an atmosphere of gamification which I think would be awesome to apply into mainstream society. One could dream.... Also, I absolutely love math by the way...

    May 11, 2012 at 04:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Tom Ee

    Before learning to play a new musical instrument you must find out whether your neighbors or whose who live in the same hours with you will be forced to share your "pleasure". Please be considerate.

    May 11, 2012 at 10:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • William Hardford

      Exactly 🙂 You learn how to play instrument, and may have dopamine rush out of playing or enjoying music. Neighbors learn that you are noisy (for instance) and they most likely have not a dopamine rush. So, different learning has different biochemical effects.

      May 11, 2012 at 14:55 | Report abuse |
  14. Wilbur Ebron

    I agree with you. I started playing the guitar about three months ago and i have found myself addicted and fulfilled in learning something new. I recently became a widower and needing to do something other than mourn for my loss. I picked the guitar because I had always had an interest in it. It has been helpful as well as alot of fun.

    May 11, 2012 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. William Hardford

    Here are the core comments about the research:

    But, have we already known that? Oe article says "Music rewards brain like sex or drugs". Is this same as "Sex n drugs n rock'n roll"? Or, "sex is like a drug" People, artists have been on something for decades.

    Learning and dopamine, i.e. "having a good time"? I haven't seen anyone saying after 9 to 5 grinding and hard work, hey, I want to have a good time. I will go to library for several hours, and learn quantum physics, refresh statistical mechanics, and prove Borel-Cantelli lemma, then work a bit on Reimmann Hypotesis. Hmm, very refreshing, I really had a good time after all this learning... No, people do not do that. After work they want to have a good time by having a beer, having sex, going to concerts, maybe getting high (whatever that means). Of course, some go to the extremes, like, having sex, while being high and having Bach concerto playing in the background. So, in any case, learning and dopamine relationship, as presented in this CNN article, needs to be revisited and, possibly, rewritten.

    May 12, 2012 at 22:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. lepointdevue

    Reblogged this on newencounter and commented:
    An article I liked on learning new things.

    May 13, 2012 at 14:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Sudhir Rao

    I am not sure why everyone is so hung up on Marcus' reference to learning music. he has just used that as an example to illustrate the kick out of learning something new that he gets. The message I take away from this post is that learning something new successfully in an area of our choice definitely gives us a high.

    May 17, 2012 at 07:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rick

    I totally agree with the statements made by Marcus. I had a bike wreck which resulted in a traumatic brain injury. I was later diagnosed with 2 forms of amnesia where approxiamtely 8 years of my memory were completely erased. Nothing was helping myshort term memory problems, so I bought myself a piano and taught myself to play classical piano. I was having trouble remembering the days of the week, but I was able to play and memorize a Beethoven piano piece. This is despite the fact that I have never had piano lessons. My long term memories won't be recovered but the music has definitely helped my brain with the short term memory problems that I have experienced.

    May 21, 2012 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Alex Lorejan

    I must acknowledge that as an English teacher I find that my students succesfully acquire knowledge when they are having fun with the subject being taught at that moment. For this reason, we use Neurosciences to help us understand the neuro pathways throught which, students learn. Having it said, we don´t teach them grammar, but we surely contextualize our classes in a sense, students do make use of what they experienced "learned" without the obstruction of grammar rules, straight to the point of fulfilling their expectation about delivering their message to their listenes accuratelly.

    May 24, 2012 at 10:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Moina G

    And this is why I have graduate students that cannot write a coherent paragraph.

    June 13, 2012 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Caroline

      ... graduate students WHO cannot write a coherent paragraph. Thanks.

      June 14, 2012 at 09:32 | Report abuse |
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