Monday, July 19, 2010

The Brain on Jazz

UTNE Reader
July-August 2010

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.”


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