How is the brain affected by culture?

Music changes the brain, but how does it do it, and what can we learn from this? Fredrik Ullén is professor at the department of neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet and an internationally recognized concert pianist. He is also the Scientific Director of a new centre for Culture, Cognition and Health.

Professor Fredrik Ullén. Photo: Linus Hallgren
Professor Fredrik Ullén. Photo: Linus Hallgren

Text: Johan Sievers, first published in Swedish in Medicinsk Vetenskap No 4/2017.

What is the purpose of establishing a research centre on the cultural brain?
”To coordinate, develop and strengthen research in this area. Artistic activities provide excellent models for understanding general mechanisms of cognition and learning. One important element of the research deals with clinical aspects, for example how artistic engagement can contribute to successful aging, both in relation to cognition and health.”

Can you give examples of any ongoing research projects?
”Currently, we are three research groups at Karolinska Institutet and one at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. One joint project involves attempting to understand the interac-tion between heredity and the environ-ment in regard to learning, motivation and the effects of training on the brain, and how this is linked to well-being and health. There will be many sub-projects under this umbrella.”

So far, a lot of research has focussed on the effect of music on the brain. Which other cultural forms are interesting?
"In the context of our health and how we feel, all forms of culture are interesting, such as art and literature. From a learning perspective, music and dance in which one learns well-defined cognitive and motor skills are very rewarding to study.”

What is your research about?
”I am studying expertise: How do we become very good at something through years of training? To give one example, we have a new study on identical twins where one of them has been shown to be more proficient in music than the other. There we can see how certain areas of the brain, such as those for hearing and motor skills, are more developed in the one who has practiced playing. So, here for the first time, we have evidence that training can make a difference even if the genetics are the same.

Where does your interest in the cultural brain come from?
”It comes from many places. For starters, I am a musician myself, but I am also interested in learning, creativity and how we can develop our potential and become excellent at something. Engagement and intrinsic motivation appear to be key factors in this process.”

More reading