February 23rd, 2012
Monica Lopez-Gonzalez and Charles Limb, both of Johns Hopkins University, authored a recent article entitled “Musical Creativity and the Brain” that appears in the online journal Cerebrum, from the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives,
These two researchers are among a small group of scientists who are using brain imaging to study the neural underpinnings of artistic creativity. Limb, and his colleague Allan Braun, put keyboard players in an fMRI and look at what parts of the brain are activated when participants “either freely improvised to the auditory accompaniment of a prerecorded jazz quartet or reproduced memorized jazz sequences.”
Lopez-Gonzalez has added to the research on improvisation by trying to “identify the neural substrates underlying the spontaneous generation of rhyming sequences in hip-hop performances.” Lopez-Gonzalez had professional freestyle rappers perform to rhythmic accompaniment “as they either spontaneously improvised lyrics or recited a pre-memorized novel rap.”
Two conclusions can be taken from the research: 1) music performance engages multiple parts of the brain, and 2) improvisational music activates different parts of the brain than is activated by reading from a score or rapping from a pre-memorized script.
The first point is important for discussions of brain health and cognitive fitness, which are improved when the brain is stimulated and exercised. Mental stimulation is more effective when multiple parts of the brain (neural/glial cell networks) are fully are engaged. Just as with physical exercise, mental exercise needs to take a cross-training approach, engaging as many different, connected brain areas as possible. The work by Limb and Lopez-Gonzales contributes to a growing body of research that shows that music production and music appreciation engage large distributed areas of the brain. It is fair to assume, therefore, that making and listening to music are activities that are likely to promote the health and vitality of our brains.
The second point is relevant to brain health as well, and also tells us something about the nature of creativity and how we might be able to improve our creative efforts. As both Limb and Lopez-Gonzales demonstrated, both types of performance (improvisation on the one hand, and strict adherence to a written score on the other) use multiple parts of the brain, but they use different parts. To get the best brain workout, therefore, performers should integrate both approaches in order to engage a full range of interconnected brain processing networks.
Further, it is important to note that improvisation requires not only the activation of different cognitive processing networks, but also the quieting or inhibition of other brain regions that support reading from a score. In other words, creativity involves a recognition of which cognitive functions need to be engaged and which need to be inhibited in order to best support the type of performance one is practicing or performing. When a jazz combo is playing together and reading their charts they need to engage one network of brain functions. But, then when the individual musicians break out for their improvised solos, the improviser needs to turn down the chart-reading brain areas and turn on the improvising brain areas. This metacognitive activity – thinking about thinking – is high-level exercise for the brain.
Engagement in creative activities that mix learned activities with improvisational routines provide an excellent workout for brains of all ages.
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