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Faculty of Science

Highschool student partners with SFU music specialist to research the developing teenage brain

June 05, 2023

When Burnaby eighth grader Advaith S. Iyer decided to conduct an experimental study for his first independent directed studies course last fall, an ambitious research idea emerged. Seeking to test the cognitive load – the amount of work the brain is doing – associated with playing musical instruments, his high school laboratory equipment was insufficient for his complex experiment.

Rather than settle for a simpler study, Iyer’s mother Lakshmi, a health science professional, reached out to SFU’s Institute for Neuroscience and Neurotechnology (INN), where neuroscientist and musician Sarah Faber provided him with the necessary tools and guidance to bring his blueprint to life.

With a passion for music and the developing brain, Iyer’s goal was to determine the cognitive load generated from playing musical instruments and compare this with the load produced from other common motor tasks.

Faber, a PhD student at the University of Toronto and resident music specialist at SFU’s INN, consulted with Iyer’s family to learn how she could assist. Faber specializes in studying brain activity linked to music listening and was eager to support the study.

Under Faber’s guidance, Iyer designed an experiment involving a series of tasks for participants to complete, consisting of math problems, word puzzles, Rubik’s cubes, playing chess, learning new languages, social media scrolling,  playing video games, and most importantly, playing a variety of  unique musical instruments. He further developed test protocols, recruited volunteer participants, and planned logistics for conducting the trials. He then measured and compared the cognitive load associated with each task to determine which was the most demanding, hypothesizing that the cognitive load associated with playing music would be the greatest.

Faber helped facilitate his research by providing lab equipment, explaining how each component functioned, and offering standby support as he conducted trials on the participants. She also helped him assure that all prerequisites of conducting an experiment were considered and completed along the way. 

Faber reviewing EEG results with Iyer

Using portable electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment supplied by the INN, Iyer measured electrical brain activity in his participants as they completed the various activities. He arranged the EEG gear on his participants using an 8-channel headset, which involved placing the array over the subjects’ foreheads where the prefrontal cortex, a region heavily involved in executive function, is located. 

Electrodes were mounted in a soft cap and connected with the participants’ scalps via electrode gel to monitor their brain activity. 

Based on the results, Iyer discovered that his hypothesis was, in fact, correct— music did generate the greatest cognitive load in his peers when compared to the other tasks presented. 

Faber says this may be because playing music uniquely uses more of the brain than the other activities, since significant hand-eye coordination occurs when musicians perform musical passages. 

Iyer also discovered through his experimental study that learning new and complex tasks challenged the teenage brain significantly more than simply repeating an activity that has been mastered.

Advaith S. Iyer, a BETA Mini-school student at Alpha Secondary School in Burnaby, proudly represented his school at the GVRSF competition in April 2023.  Iyer presented his research to 17 judges at the GVRSF where he earned a bronze medal for his efforts and further secured an SFU Faculty of Science award.

Iyer at the 2023 GVRSF

Faber says she had a wonderful time collaborating with Iyer, noting that such experiments are important because they facilitate learning about the developing brain in adolescents. 

“Young brains change very quickly, so we can’t always take what we know about adult brains and apply the same knowledge to adolescents”, she says.

“Opportunities like these are why we get into this field. It’s easy to forget that the driving forces behind our research are the questions we want to answer.”