URI Thewlis Lecture addresses aging, creativity and neuroscience

Nina Kraus
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY Professor Nina Kraus on April 12 will speak at the University of Rhode Island on “The Fine Art of Aging: Connecting Creativity and Neuroscience.” / COURTESY JUSTIN BARBIN

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The 2017 Malford Thewlis Lecture on Gerontology and Geriatrics at the University of Rhode Island will explore the relationships among aging, creative expression and brain science. Nina Kraus, professor of communication sciences, neurobiology and otolaryngology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., will speak April 12 on “The Fine Art of Aging: Connecting Creativity and Neuroscience.” The lecture, free and open to the community, is part of URI’s annual Aging and Health Week, which is sponsored by URI’s Program in Gerontology, Office of the Provost, College of Health Sciences/Academic Health Collaborative and the George and Anne Ryan Institute as well as the Rhode Island Geriatric Education Center.

“We tend to associate creativity with younger people,” Phillip Clark, director of URI’s gerontology program, said in a URI statement. “That’s not true. Art and creativity are extremely important as we get older.”

A 6 p.m. reception will precede Kraus’ talk, scheduled for 7 in Edwards Hall on the South Kingstown campus. Her talk will explore emerging research on aging, the impact of creativity on the brain – particularly regarding music and sound – and the neuroscience linking these elements.

Kraus, who holds the Hugh Knowles Chair at Northwestern University, has conducted innovative research involving thousands of participants from birth to age 90 and has revealed that sound and our active engagement with it shape how we live. She is the founder of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Brainvolts, which investigates the biology of auditory learning and presents its findings in straightforward and easily understood multimedia formats.

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“Sound is a powerful force in our lives, it is central to human communication,” Kraus said in the statement. “We don’t recognize how incredibly important sound is because it is invisible, but it has the ability to shape our brains for better or worse.”

Even when it’s not loud enough to damage our ears, sound can harm our brains when it manifests as incessant moderate noise, such as the droning of highway traffic outside a classroom or the beeping of motorized vehicles in an airport, Kraus said. A great deal of hearing happens in the brain, so exposure to such noise can blunt auditory processes, she added.

On a positive front, sound can aid brain development and resilience across the lifespan when we play music, sing or learn a new language, said Kraus. “Music activates the cognitive, sensory-motor and reward centers of the brain. It is kind of a jackpot, engaging these centers thoroughly,” said Kraus, who hopes audience members leave her presentation thinking about sound in new ways.

While listening to music can be pleasurable, making music or learning a new language is beneficial. “I tell people you are not going to get physically fit watching sports. Active engagement is what strengthens our neural passages,” said Kraus, an amateur musician.

She said research indicates those who play or have played an instrument, even in childhood, enjoy better cognition and memory as they age, stressing that it is never too late to take up an instrument.

The Thewlis Lecture is one of three free events scheduled during Aging and Health Week. An award-winning documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” was shown April 9. The film highlights the powerful impact of music on persons with dementia. The Intergenerational Community Event will be held April 12, 2-4 p.m. in Atrium 1 in the Memorial Union. This event will bring together students, faculty, staff and older adults from the community to explore including music, writing, theater and photography in their lives.

The URI gerontology program, part of the College of Health Sciences/Academic Health Collaborative, launched the Thewlis Lecture 11 years ago to recognize the contributions of Dr. Malford W. Thewlis, a pioneer in the field of geriatric medicine, a founder of the American Geriatrics Society in 1942 and a former Wakefield resident.

A live broadcast of Kraus’ speech will be available at livestream.com/universityofrhodeisland. For more information, visit web.uri.edu/rigec/special-events.

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