[JPL] Creativity Explored, by Mapping Jazz Musicians' Brains

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Thu Feb 28 13:31:45 EST 2008

  Creativity Explored, by Mapping Jazz Musicians' Brains

Ever wondered what happens inside jazz musicians' (or any musicians') 
heads when their eyes get glazed, and they begin to lose themselves in 
the music they're improvising?

A team of researchers studying the creative process now have a partial 
answer to that question. 
Using a group of trained jazz musicians who were also patient enough to 
agree to practice their art inside an functioning MRI machine, they've 
watched exactly what happens inside the brain when an artist begins to 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that large areas of the brain 
responsible for monitoring ones own behavior are all but shut down, 
while another small region associated with organizing "self-initiated" 
thoughts and behavior is highly active.

As any musician will quickly guess, this wasn't an easy study to set up. 
The subjects were told to lie on their backs in the MRI machine, with a 
keyboard on their laps, visible in a mirror above them.

They were given a variety of tasks to do, including playing a simple C 
major scale, improvising within that single scale, playing a tune from 
memory, and improvising along with a pre-recorded jazz quartet playing 
through headphones.

In both improvisational tasks, whether relatively simple or complex, 
large parts of the prefrontal cortex (and most specifically the 
dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shut down almost completely. Researchers 
say this area of the brain is responsible for monitoring one's own 
performance, and can be associated with inhibitions.

By contrast, the medial prefrontal cortex, which researchers have seen 
is active when a person describes a past event, or when telling a story, 
was very active. They say this pattern is not usual, but is also 
associated with dream states.

Areas of the brain associated with sensory activity, including those 
linked with touch, hearing and vision, also were strongly active during 
the improvisational tasks, although there was little difference in what 
the subjects were actually seeing, feeling or hearing during those 
moments as compared to the rote tasks.

Researchers say that this brain pattern is likely replicated in other 
creative tasks as well, and that the pattern seen are likely to be 
indicators of hard-to-identify creative thought. 

"One important thing we can conclude from this study is that there is no 
single creative area of the brain---no focal activation of a single 
area," said Allen Braun, chief of the language division of the National 
Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), in a 
study. The NIDCD funded the study. "Rather, when you move from either of 
the control tasks to improvisation, you see a strong and consistent 
pattern of activity throughout the brain that enables creativity."

The study was published in the PLoS ONE journal 
and is available to read in its entirety online.

Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of 
Jazz Improvisation 
In Jazz Improv, Large Portion of Brain's Prefrontal Region 'Takes Five' 
to Let Creativity Flow 
<http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/news/releases/08/02_26_08.htm> [National 
Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders]

Dr. Jazz
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