Scientists have used brain scans to uncover what happens in the minds of jazz and other improv players when their creative juices start flowing.
Writing in the journal PLoS One, US research duo Allen Braun and Charles Limb recruited 6 trained jazz pianists and asked them to play scales, some pre-learned blues music and also improvise in their own styles whilst inside an MRI scanner. The musicians used a keyboard adapted specially for the scanner and what they played was relayed back to them via headphones. The aim of the study was to understand the neurological basis of the almost trance-like state adopted by jazz musicians when they improvise.
"They often play with their eyes closed in a distinctive personal style that transcends traditional rules of melody and rhythm," says Lamb. "It's a remarkable frame of mind during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous."
To pinpoint the brain regions responsible, the researchers subtracted the scan results obtained when the musicians played scales or learned pieces of music, since they're common to any musical activity, from the pattern of neural activity when they improvised.
The results showed that improvisation was associated with a significant drop in activity in the brain's dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex, an area linked to self-censoring, inhibition and planned actions, such as deciding how to respond at a job interview. At the same time the medial pre-frontal cortex, which controls self-expression and individuality, increased in activity.
So it seems the musicians are disinhibiting themselves and at the same time boosting their creative brain centres. "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," says Limb. He and Braun are now planning to find out whether members of other creative professions, like writers or painters also show the same patterns of brain activity when they go to work.
Let's just hope the work of any poets scans correctly...