Brain Matters

There has been a lot of attention the past few days to a study at Johns Hopkins Medicine on what happens in the brain when jazz musicians improvise. One of the conclusions by Dr. Charles Limb, one of the researchers, who is also a saxophonist:

Jazz is often described as being an extremely individualistic art form. You can figure out which jazz musician is playing because one person’s improvisation sounds only like him or her,” says Limb. “What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.

We can all think of soloists whose flow of novel ideas is impeded, but that’s not the point of the study’s findings. Rather, it is this:

It appears, they conclude, that jazz musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

That may seem to be pointing out the obvious, but the details are fascinating. Four pianists served as subjects for the research by improvising on keyboards strapped to their laps as they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, an fMRI. Don’t try that at home. Johns Hopkins does not disclose whether the pianists swung. Reports about the study, many of them perfunctory, have turned up in newspapers everywhere. To read the complete Johns Hopkins news release that fueled those stories and to get leads to further information, go here. You may be surprised to learn what your medial prefrontal cortex has been up to.

Blakeslee.jpgBook tip: For more on the growing understanding of how the brain works, read The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own by New York Times Science writer Sandra Blakeslee and her son Matthew. They write with clarity, wit and a sense of discovery.