Creativity and the Brain
A study showed that when jazz musicians are engaged in the highly creative and spontaneous activity known as improvisation, a large region of the brain involved in monitoring performance is shut down, while a small region involved in organizing self-initiated thoughts and behaviors is highly active.
Dehoff: Hear that?
Dehoff: What is being played is called the Scale paradigm and is based on a simple C major scale. Now listen.
Dehoff: Notice the difference? This sample is based on the first, but this time the musicians were asked to improvise. These music samples are two of the same pieces used in a study, conducted by researchers the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). The study showed that when jazz musicians are engaged in the highly creative and spontaneous activity known as improvisation—what you just heard in that second sample—a large region of the brain involved in monitoring performance is shut down, while a small region involved in organizing self-initiated thoughts and behaviors is highly active.
Braun: We asked six professional jazz musicians to, essentially, jam for us.
Dehoff: Dr. Allen Braun, chief of the NIDCD's Division of Intramural Research Language Section is one of the study authors.
Braun: We had them play a couple of different pieces, one being very simple and the other being a little more complex that served as the baseline. One was a simple quarter note scale and the other was a piece that was over-learned—given to them a couple of days before—and they memorized it. They had to lie on their backs while we scanned their brains. It was not the ideal state to produce music, but they were professionals, and they did it quite well. We had them improvise with the same sorts of constraints, but instead of going up and down the scale, they went all over and created some spontaneous piece of what turned out to be fairly decent music.
Dehoff: You may be asking yourself at this point, "If I'm not a professional jazz musician, what does this mean for me?" Well, the researchers propose that this and several related patterns are likely to be key indicators of a brain that is engaged in highly creative thought. Because of the many variables involved when the brain is thinking creatively it has been, until now, difficult for scientists to study. Dr. Braun, explains how music was used in this study to help identify the region of the brain responsible for creative thought.
Braun: Well, we've been interested for a while in what sort of brain processes enable creative behavior; make it possible for people to produce creative materials. That's one of the reasons that music appealed to us. You want a control for sensory motor activity. It seemed to be easy to control for the excursion of the fingers on a piano by creating pieces that were over learned like the scales we used. That would be the baseline condition. Then we could allow the subjects, the jazz artists, to improvise in the scanner. The difference, when we subtracted one from the other, would give you what was happening during the creative process.
Dehoff: From the researcher's perspective, here is what is happening in the brains of the artists as they improvise:
Braun: What we saw was that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that does many functions—but one of them is to construct goal-oriented behaviors, sequences of behaviors that are well thought out, well planned, and to monitor oneself when those behaviors are being executed; make corrections; watch what you do, and change things in mid-course if they don't follow the pre-determined plan—those areas were deactivated, as you might expect. These subjects were simply not watching themselves, they just let it go.
Dehoff: Regina Carter, a professional jazz musician, describes what it is she thinks about when she is improvising:
Carter: If I'm comfortable with the cord structures that are under me, if I'm comfortable with the environment, if I'm comfortable with the musicians I'm playing with, and if it's a tune I really like, I usually just can let go and let the music come out. So, I'm not really.I'm not thinking, if there is such a thing, you know, where my mind is totally clear and the music has just taken over.
Dehoff: While researchers were able to pinpoint differences in how the brain functions when the musicians are improvising, they conclude that there is no single creative area of the brain. Instead, they found that when a subject shifted from a control task to improvisation, a strong and consistent pattern of activity was observed throughout the brain. Dr. Braun says he is interested in continuing this research:
Braun: We'd like to follow this up to look at other domains and see if this sort of generalizes to all forms of creative behavior. I don't know if we'll get around to looking at classical music. Classical music typically isn't associated with improvisation, but classical music involved a lot of improvisation in the nineteenth century and it would be interesting to look at that as well. I was contacted right away when this hit the Internet by a guy in L.A. who does rap music—he does a kind of rap called free-styling which is spontaneously rhyming. And, this would lend itself perfectly to this sort of behavior - looking at a language domain or the interface between language and music.
Dehoff: This is Jeff Dehoff for NIH Research Radio at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Jeff Dehoff
Sound Bite: Dr. Allen Braun, Regina Carter
Topic: Jazz, Brain, improv