The Brain on Jazz

Studying the brains of jazz musicians through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology

The Brain on Jazz Image

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Great composers wrote and rewrote their works, but a jazz musician playing a solo passage is engaging in an amazing mental feat of spontaneous creation—and researchers are studying these artistically charged moments for important clues about creativity and learning.

For the March 2010 issue, Urbanite interviewed Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins University with a research fellowship to study the brain through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology. Limb is also a saxophonist and has always wondered what takes place in the brain when a jazz musician improvises.

To find out, Limb had jazz musicians play memorized music while being monitored by an fMRI machine. He then asked them to start improvising and noticed a shift in neurological activity. Their scans showed less activity in the areas that represent self-censoring and inhibition and more in the area that indicates self-expression. Limb interpreted this shift as a possible sign of “spontaneous creativity.”

He plans to do another variation of the study in which two jazz musicians play back and forth, and he’s devising an experiment in which hip-hop rappers recite set verses and rap freestyle. The experiment could also be applied to visual artists by having them copy a painting with different limitations.

Studying the brain’s activity during creative endeavors could help researchers better understand learning and revolutionize teaching methods. Limb posits that neuroscientists and educators “can pool our resources and our skills to ask: How can we understand how the brain learns best and revise our methods of education so that they are more effective? Maybe we can come up with a training paradigm that has the added insight of knowing how the brain is responding to it.”

Image by  neurollero , licensed under  Creative Commons .