Brain scans reveal your musical autobiography

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders took brain scans of musicians and discovered that improvisation fires regions of the brain associated with activities that reveal individuality (such as telling a story about yourself) while shutting off areas responsible for planning and self-censorship.

I came across a reference to this study in the June issue of Wired and did some research to learn more. A March 4 article in USA Today describes how the researchers recruited six jazz pianists to play a specially designed keyboard while lying on their backs in an MRI machine. The scans revealed activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the same region that lights up when we improvise solutions to problems or when we dream or when we tell stories about ourselves. Charles Limb, one of the researchers, said that musical improvisation is “basically sculpting your own identity, the voice you’re going to use.” He added, “It’s like your own musical autobiography.”

That is perhaps not surprising, but what I found even more interesting is that the brain turns off the dorsolaterial prefrontal cortex, the region linked to planning, careful actions and self-censorship. Evidently, thinking too much about what you’re going to play kills the soul at the heart of improvisation. Listeners, I suspect, probably sense this, either consciously or subconsciously. Think of when a performance sounds stilted or unnatural: it’s kind of like telling a story that isn’t true. The researchers conclude that musicians create their unique improvised riffs by turning off inhibition and turning up creativity.

For further information, see the Johns Hopkins press release about the study.

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