How the Neuroscience of Sound, Language and Music Shapes Human Communication

Communication through sound is an everyday miracle. Spoken language reaches the listener’s ear as soundwaves that our auditory system transforms into brainwaves. But merely decoding sound from the environment is insufficient to guarantee that its meaning will be understood. To make sense of the incoming sound, our brain must learn and adapt over time. This learning process shapes how the brain connects sound with meaning, and is crucial for children – the growing brain needs to process a multitude of different sounds at any given moment, it needs to tell meaning from noise, and register meaningful speech sounds for later use. Connecting sound to meaning is one of the most demanding computational tasks our brain has to master, and the inability to process sound properly is often connected to problems in learning and reading. Nina Kraus, a neurobiology professor at Northwestern University, studies the biology of auditory processing and how the brain’s plasticity allows it to adapt and learn over time. Through a series of innovative studies, Nina and her team found that our “life in sound” shapes our auditory brain – and that musical training can improve communication and reading skills – throughout the life span. Based on their research, her Lab created a test that predicts children’s literacy skills long before they start reading. This ground-breaking technology allows children at risk of learning disabilities to be identified, making it possible to enrich their life in sound at a very early stage. At Falling Walls, Nina shows how our knowledge of the brain’s potential to change can be used to improve education and communication.

Nina Kraus is a Professor at Northwestern University, investigating the neural encoding of speech and music and its plasticity. Her Auditory Neuroscience Lab examines the neural encoding of sound in the normal system, how it is disrupted in clinical populations, and how it reacts to differing levels of expertise. For individuals with communication difficulties (reading, auditory processing disorder, autism), the neural encoding of speech can provide a biological marker of deficient sound encoding, while the musician’s brain illustrates how extensive auditory expertise can enhance sensory-cognitive interactions. Investigations on brain plasticity are aimed at improving human communication and learning in individuals throughout the life span and in clinical populations. Kraus’ work is rooted in translational issues, working to bring scientific understanding and new technologies into educational and clinical settings. The Kraus Lab has developed an objective and non-invasive biological approach for the assessment of auditory processing, that is becoming more widely available through partnerships with commercial technologies.

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