How jazz changes the way you think

New research presented at Neuroscience 2013 has shed light on the systemic benefits of jazz improvisation, showing how it enhances connectivity between major regions of the brain 

A new study presented at Neuroscience 2013 suggests that practising jazz improvisation over time strengthens certain brain circuits, allowing music to flow.

Improvisers with more experience showed higher connectivity between three major regions of the brain while improvising, indicating that less conscious attention was needed while they were playing, allowing them to seamlessly produce variations on a theme.

The study, led by Ana Pinho of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, was one of three music-themed pieces of research presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. A study by Julie Roy showed that musicians have an advanced ability to integrate sensory information, while new research by Yunxin Wang found that beginning musical training before the age of seven has the greatest impact on the brain’s anatomy.

Pinho worked with 39 pianists in her study to explore brain activity while improvising. Each pianist improvised for brief periods on a 12-key MRI-compatible keyboard, which allowed researchers to track real-time brain activity in the frontal lobe. The more experienced improvisers demonstrated higher connectivity between major regions of the brain, as well as lower overall regional activity during improvisation. According to Pinho, this connectivity suggests that the process of improvising becomes more automated over time.

Pinho said: “The lower activity in frontal brain regions that we saw in trained improvisers is interesting, and one could speculate that it is related to the feeling of ‘flow’…when music comes without conscious thought or effort.”

Summaries of the three pieces of research can be found on the Society for Neuroscience website.

Sally Evans-Darby

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