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Musical improvising -- is it all in your brain?

April 1, 2010 |  1:42 pm
Eric Is there a biological basis to a great sax solo?

Jonah Lehrer, a Wired editor and author of several populist-psychology books, recently recapped an intriguing new study by psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University. The authors asked distinct groups of college students to imagine a day off from school or work, with one group’s day set in the present, and the other's set from the perspective of a 7-year-old, and then gave each some creative problem-solving tasks.

It turns out that the latter group displayed far more creative agility on the tests after envisioning a free day as a child without the strictures of adult expectations.

There’s a specific region of the brain -- the prefrontal cortex -- that grows as we mature and socialize, enabling more focused attention but also keeping more random or dissociated ideas in line. Lehrer speculates that this has particular ramifications for musicians who improvise -- skilled instrumentalists might actually have learned to ignore this part of the brain that self-edits creativity and spontaneity.

The history of music is full of people looking for ways to, well, alter their minds to become more inventive players. This research suggests they may have actually been onto something. But sorry, bands, you still can’t write off your cortex-killing bar tabs as a medical expense.

-- August Brown

Photo of Eric Dolphy by Francis Wolff / Mosaic Images / CORBIS