Tuesday, October 22, 2013


The Neuroscience of Personality


The Neuroscience of Personality

In this talk, part of the "Authors at Google" series, Dario Nardi, Ph.D, presents a summary of his research into the neuroscience of personality type, specifically the sixteen types of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Dr. Nardi conducted a 5-year research project (which he describes as a "big pilot study") in which he monitored the brains of students ages 18-25, while they performed a range of tasks and activities, using an EEG. Each student had taken the MBTI and had ten weeks in which to determine their best-fit personality type. In the lab, the students performed activities such as playing card or word games, physical tasks such as juggling, memory tasks such as recalling items on a list or in a visual scene, and thinking tasks such as math or analogies. They communicated with others in a variety of formats such as simulated speed-dating or role-playing with actors. Each student also engaged in an area in which they had a level of expertise, such as music or dance. Overall, each student spent between 2-3 hours in the lab. The data that Dr. Nardi collected over this period suggests that although each brain is different and individual, persons of the same personality type will show significantly similar activity (for instance, two ENFPs have a 50% chance of having 80% of their brain activity be the same). In fact, at one point Dr. Nardi responded to a question by stating that if he were to see only the aggregate of someone's EEG data, he would most likely be able to identify their Myers-Briggs personality type. The research suggests that personality type likely has much to do with common patterns of brain activity.

 Although this may seem to be only tangentially related to music, I am interested in this research and its application especially to music-making for a number of reasons. First, about halfway through the presentation (at 39:15), Dr. Nardi begins to discuss what happens in the brain when someone is in a state of flow. In this state, which Dr. Nardi describes as a type of holistic brain activity, the entire brain synchronizes so that each section of the brain shows the same frequency and amplitude. This frequency is one in which the brain is awake and alert, yet relaxed (it shows as light blue on an EEG). Dr. Nardi found that this state seems to occur either when someone is engaging in a specific activity that is characteristic of their personality type (for example, an INFP actively listening) or when someone is performing a task related to their interest and expertise. For instance, a professional musician entered a state of flow when he was playing and singing one of his own compositions; interestingly, however, he did not enter this state when performing a song by someone else. 

I can't help but draw parallels here to my previous post on Dr. Charles Limb's research on brain activity during improvisation. Again, here is an instance of a musician entering a very specific brain state when performing music he himself has generated, but not music written by someone else. The act of performing original music - whether improvised or composed - seems demonstrably different than the act of performing memorized music by others. I am intrigued by the implications of this for classical musicians. Is a state of flow necessary for good performance? (Most of the participants did not seem to be consciously aware of when they were in this state). Can this state be achieved in a memorized performance? It would seem so, as some of Dr. Nardi's subjects who were theatre students were in a state of flow when performing a memorized and rehearsed scene. 

Perhaps even more interesting than the question of flow is that of personality type and brain activity. As a performer and a teacher, I would be fascinated to see a study similar to Dr. Nardi's with a focus on musicians. Specifially, I would love to know which sections of the brain were active in the different personality types while performing or otherwise engaging with music. It seems to me that differing patterns of brain activity may help to explain why some musicians seem to be "natural" performers while others are described as "wooden"; why some have a particular affinity for text delivery; why some are rhythmically precise but seem to struggle with melodic phrasing, or vice versa; and why musicians are drawn to certain specialties such as opera or early music. Might performers be helped by knowing their type and thus having a sense of their natural preferences as well as those areas that are difficult? Might teachers be able to better target their teaching to each individual student if they knew that student's type? Do different types enter a state of flow under different conditions, in response to different stimuli? I believe that these questions are worth investigating, as they may have the potential to assist teachers, students and performers in overcoming some of the more frustrating, intangible hurdles associated with music making. 

2 comments:

Tina Alexander said...

I think that the idea of personality type and preferences in music is quite interesting. Some of my research in this class this year was in that area. In the Jourdain book, he says that “Before all else, people use music for mood enhancement. Psychologists have long known that different personality types are attracted to different kinds of drugs, legal and illegal”. He then goes on to briefly connect this to music saying how each genre relates to different actions, for example: “hard rock as the frenzied rush of cocaine” (261).

I know this doesn't relate exactly to your blog post, but I think that it brings up an interesting question in terms of performance, and individuals differences. I recently read a study where 145 people were studied (McKeen Cattell) doing a musical preference questionnaire. Interestingly enough, individual’s who were extroverts generally chose music with a higher number of melodic themes as opposed to introverts. Also, those individuals with a greater sense of boldness and adventure also liked a higher number of melodic themes, as well as faster tempos and irregular rhythms, while the individuals with tendencies towards being shy and socially timid liked a smaller number of melodic themes, slower tempos, and regular rhythms. In partially speaking to your question about flow- I don't know if perhaps having music that speaks to individuals preferences would aid in enabling them to enter into a state of flow, but my thoughts are that guided repertoire choices based on personality type/personal preference can't hurt.

It is also very interesting to consider the state of flow in relation to improvisation, and how that works in the classical realm of music. You mentioned the question: "Is a state of flow necessary for good performance?"- and although this is interesting, this seems to me something that is basically immeasurable, and how does this state of flow or "success" become a regular occurrence, especially in a primarily non-improvised genre of music?

Great insights on an interesting topic!

Pamela Lum said...

Hi Rebecca,
This was a very interesting article you read. When we are creating and performing music, we want to reach the state of flow. This is interesting how personality and preferences can affect whether a person can reach flow. From my readings, I understood that most people reach the state of flow when they are improvising. In your article, it mentions that people who are performing memorized and rehearsed selections are also reaching the state of flow. I wonder which musician (the prepared one or the one improvising) will reach the state of flow first.

Pamela