Playing your iPod may not just be for your listening pleasure anymore, as a new study shows that listening to favorite songs can lead to increased brain functioning.

On Feb. 25, neuroscientists at the Georgetown University Medical Center published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience describing what brain activity looks like when a person begins to expect a sensory experience.

“The brain is all about anticipation and prediction, yet no one has shown what that looks like in terms of neural action,” said Josef Rauschecker, director of the Program in Cognitive and Computational Sciences, in a university press release.

The neuroscientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to analyze how students’ brain activities responded when they listened to their favorite CDs. The research indicates that when students were listening to CDs of which they were familiar, their brain would begin to anticipate the next song during the silence between the tracks. However, when students were unfamiliar with the music they were listening to, the levels of brain activity were noticeably lower.

“This now explains how it is that, even before an anticipated song is actually heard, a person can start to tap fingers, dance or sing to the music they imagine is coming next,” Rauschecker said in the press release.

Rauschecker also described this process of expectation as “cued associative learning.”

His fellow researchers found that anticipated neural activity is present, not only when people are listening to music, but also when people are processing languages or playing sports.

In the press release, Rauschecker said that the researchers had not expected the brain to exhibit activity before the actual sensory experience occurred. The research showed that when students were listening to familiar music, the brain activity began in their prefrontal cortexes, which plan their behaviors, expressions and decisions. The neural activity then transferred to the premotor cortex, which is responsible for their physical movements.

“It is not trivial to store a temporal sequence in the brain, because the brain doesn’t have any moving parts like a tape recorder or CD player. The whole brain needs to be involved because it has to be ready to execute that sequence,” Rauschecker said in the press release.

The neuroscientists also observed how cued associative learning affected animals.

“That’s why a bird can sing. But humans are the most associative of animals, which is why we have such a large prefrontal cortex. We have a lot of sequences that we need to store in order to predict what we should do,” Rauschecker said.

The research presented in the Journal of Neuroscience article was compiled by Jennifer Van Lare, Amber Leaver and Brandon Zielinski, members of the laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition, and Andrea Halpern, a professor in the psychology department at Bucknell University. Funding for the project was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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