Thursday, October 30, 2008

(Posted by Michael Bellissimo)

Some Johns Hopkins researchers decided to study Jazz Musicians and improvisation, in an attempt to show that “their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow.”
The MRI was used in this study and the researches wanted to use it while the musicians actually played. They had to design special keyboard that contained no metal parts and head phones that were also not going interfere with the magnetic field created by the MRI. Three jazz musicians from the Peabody Music Conservatory volunteered for the study.
Each musician first took part in four different exercises designed to separate out the brain activity involved in playing simple memorized piano pieces and activity while improvising their music. While lying in the fMRI machine with the special keyboard propped on their laps, the pianists all began by playing the C-major scale, a well-memorized order of notes that every beginner learns. With the sound of a metronome playing over the headphones, the musicians were instructed to play the scale, making sure that each volunteer played the same notes with the same timing.
In the second exercise, the pianists were asked to improvise in time with the metronome. They were asked to use quarter notes on the C-major scale, but could play any of these notes that they wanted.
Next, the musicians were asked to play an original blues melody that they all memorized in advance, while a recorded jazz quartet that complemented the tune played in the background. In the last exercise, the musicians were told to improvise their own tunes with the same recorded jazz quartet.
The brain scans were analysed and the researcher removed the scans that were typically associated with memorization from the portion of the study where familiar exercises were played. They then looked at the brain activity from the improv portion of the test. Regardless of the complexity of the improvisational exercise they found that found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain revealed a slowing of activity in the area typically used for self-censoring suggesting an increased state of inhibition. In addition there was increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (center of the brain’s frontal lobe) that is responsible for self-expression individuality.


As a musician who also majored in jazz I often wondered what was going on while I was improvising or for that matter was going on when the GREAT jazz musician played. The interesting thing about this is that you may be able to equate the area on the brain that reveals increased inhibition with the person who demonstrates a “free” attitude and increased inhibition and determine the better improviser. There are in fact many stories about the great jazz musician and there ability to behave in a way that was unlike those in “straight” society. This may also reveal the link to drug use especially during the 1960’s.
If this research pans out then could we see jazz, or improvisational dance, as a therapeutic method for those with paranoia, depression, panic attacks, or disorders related to fear?

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